Scientists from Milton Keynes have played a key role in the first-ever space probe to land on a comet.
Researchers from the Open University, based at Milton Keynes, helped to develop a number of instruments on board Philae, which landed just after 4pm on the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.
This included work on Ptolemy, which will analyse samples from the comet and tell us what it is made of.
OU scientists also contributed to the MUPUS (Multi-Purpose Sensors for Surface and Subsurface Science) instrument, which will be used to monitor the temperature of the comet, whilst GIADA will measure the number, mass, momentum and velocity distribution of dust grains in the near-comet environment.
This is a key moment in a project which dates back to 1986, while the probe itself has been journeying through space for a decade. The project has brought together scientists from a range of countries, with the OU’s involvement initially spearheaded by the late Professor Colin Pillinger who was instrumental in getting the proposed Ptolemy device accepted as part of the science payload.
The spacecraft has already performed two asteroid flyby missions on its way to the comet, including sending images back from Mars in 2007.
Professor Monica Grady, professor in planetary sciences and head of the OU’s department for physical sciences, said: “Whatever the outcome on Wednesday, the mission is already a tremendous success and is teaching us so much – not only about comets, but also about what is possible in space science.
“The images taken by the Rosetta orbiter are the closest ever taken, allowing us to learn more about the surface of the comet. In addition to that, here at the OU the technology and expertise developed to create a craft of this type has already delivered significant scientific breakthroughs closer to home.”
If the landing is successful, it will be a significant breakthrough in the scientific community’s knowledge of comets, potentially providing researchers with unprecedented information about the comet’s structure and composition. This information may give invaluable insight into the role comets may have played in the formation in our Earth.
Instruments such as Ptolemy will be vital to discovering such things as whether water on the comet bears any chemical resemblance to that found on Earth.
Professor Grady added: “The biggest question that we are trying to get an answer to is: where did life on Earth come from? How did life get going? Was it the building blocks of life that were brought to us from comets or did it get going on Earth? Did the water on Earth come from comets? Are we reliant on these bodies to have brought water to us?”