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Photos: The surface of that comet we just landed on might be ‘light and fluffy’

We did it, humanity. We landed a spaceship on a comet. Now the first images are trickling back from its surface, and it looks pretty much how you’d expect: like a whole bunch of rocks.

The first two images from Philae confirmed it safely reached the comet's surface. The probe's foot is visible in the bottom left corner.
The first two images from Philae confirmed it safely reached the comet’s surface. The probe’s foot is visible in the bottom left corner.
The first panoramic image from Philae shows a full circle of rocky ground surrounding it.
The first panoramic image from Philae shows a full circle of rocky ground surrounding it.

But scientists are considering the idea that the surface is actually soft. When the Philae probe landed, the harpoons meant to secure it to the comet failed to fire. Instead it bounced and then settled back down, apparently held down by the screws at the tips of its three landing legs.

“Possibly the surface material is light and fluffy and that it stuck into this material — and there is indication that it buried itself several centimeters into the surface which suggests that it is not very hard,” said University of Leicester planetary scientist Stan Cowley, who contributed to the early stages of the Rosetta mission. “On the other hand the screws appear to have worked, which is good, but it is still not very clear how tightly it is gripping onto the surface. We will have to wait for further data to see.”

Philae also grabbed a set of photos as it descended toward the comet, which measures 2.5 miles across on its wider end.

The red marker pinpoints the spot where Philae is believed to have landed.
The red marker pinpoints the spot where Philae is believed to have landed.

The European Space Agency is now busy collecting data from the comet’s surface, including the dust and ice that was kicked up during the landing. What they find could help paint a picture of the formation of our solar system. For example, did comets seed water, and even life itself, on Earth?

Photos by the European Space Agency.