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After ambitious but bouncy comet landing, science gains would be ‘bonus’ – Part 2

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Let's talk a little bit more now about the scientific work and the complications ahead, given the position of the lander.

    NewsHour science correspondent Miles O'Brien joins us again, tonight from Mountain View, California.

    So, Miles, what is it that the lander, that this Rosetta lander is supposed to be doing while it's on the comet?

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Well, Philae is actually loaded with science, 10 experiments in all, and it can do a good chunk of those experiments and is already — that work is already under way.

    As a matter of fact, one of the items on it is to determine the magnetic field of the comet, and that device, that scientific instrument, was able to determine that as it was in the midst of its bouncing once, twice, and finally landing, it did a pirouette at one point.

    So, that's kind of interesting right on its own right. It's able to send radio waves through the comet, which would be received on the other side by the orbiting Rosetta, and it will be able to detect some key features of the surface, the constituency and makeup of the surface of the comet.

    The big one, though, the drill, that's an open question right now, because they don't — they assume, I should say, that when you drill in to the surface without being anchored, there could be trouble.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Remind us, Miles, why they want to get inside this comet. What is it about the comet that is important for them to — for all of us to understand?

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Well, it's basically — if you think about you and I having a conversation, we probably owe it all to comets. Comets are what scientists now believe seeded our solar system with life, with water, with some of the key ingredients of life, organic compounds, amino acids.

    And so it's now believed widely that these comets were going around, hitting impacts in the early days of the solar system, creating the oceans that we have, and thus creating the cushy birth for life that we have.

    So if you want to find out a little bit about how life began, whether we're alone in the universe, and really what was going on 4.5 billion years ago, when the solar system was being formed, a comet is a perfect place to go.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, how much — how big a disappointment is it then to go all the way out there, 300 million miles, and not to be able to get that?

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Well, you know, you want to get it all, but, boy, it's pretty darn cool what they have accomplished, isn't it? They're on a comet. They have landed in a very difficult landing environment, 1-000th the gravity that we have here on Earth. So, when those harpoons that were supposed to hoist it in didn't deploy, that was a problem.

    And when the thruster, which was supposed to keep it firmly seated on the comet itself didn't work either, that was a problem too. But this is a craft that spent 10 years flying through space and not everything worked. You can focus on that, or you can take a look at those pictures and go, wow. This is amazing we're here. And whatever science we're able to get is a bonus.

    And I should — I suspect that scientists toward the end of the 60-hour battery life might very well try to drill in and see what happens. What do they have to lose?

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And you mentioned the battery, which is only, what, a few days — it's supposed to last only a few days. Is that right?

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Yes, it does have solar panels and a rechargeable capability, and they were hoping to extend the mission for quite some time, but that's unclear right now because it's apparently at an odd angle in its landing position, and it's also shielded from the sun by, apparently, a cliff.

    So it only gets about 90 minutes of sunlight per day, and so that's going to limit the ability of those solar arrays to recharge and provide an extended mission. So they're pretty frantic right now trying to get as much science as they can.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But, as you say, exciting, because it would be the first time to land on a comet, first time to go around the sun, I gather.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Yes, you know, to have spacecraft in formation, if you will, with a comet, as it heads towards the sun, as comets gets closer to the sun and the temperature heats up, things get really exciting. There's a lot of gas that comes off of it, and as it spews.

    A comet's tail, after all, is the ice sublimating into space as the comet gets closer to the sun. And so, it's going to be action-packed as it gets closer to the sun. Let's hope these instruments are able to survive and phone home.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And even — there's even some sound associated with all this. We will urge everybody to go online to look for that.

    Miles O'Brien, we thank you.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    You're welcome, Judy.

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