A surprising greeting came from space this past weekend. But don’t worry, it wasn’t from aliens. It was from the nearly-lost Philae lander, which is currently riding a comet speeding through outerspace. After seven months of hibernation, the solar-powered lander woke up from its deep slumber to tell scientists it is still functioning, and hopefully ready to explore. As the comet hurtles towards the sun, it’s exciting to wonder what new information the lander will send to the European Space Agency, which is running the mission.
Here at Dassault Systèmes, we’re very proud of the inspirational mission, which used our software to enable the Philae Lander to complete its 4 billion mile, ten year journey. More specifically, it was our software that was used to ensure the lander actually landed.
The Philae landed on the comet in November 2014, but the initial landing on the giant comet proved to be a challenge. The anchoring harpoons didn’t secure the lander to its intended landing site, leaving Philae bouncing across the barren comet.
It was Dassault Systèmes’ simulation software that helped save the day. Dr. Martin Hilchenback, one of the original designers of the experiment, credits the Dassault Systèmes software the team used, SIMPACK, with saving the landing.
“The fourth impact, where the lander became wedged in a final resting place, demonstrated that you can secure a lander on a comet without the action of a harpoon/anchor!” Hilchenback explained in an interview. “But the fact that Philae stayed intact, and its pre-programmed activities continued, is a testimony to the robustness of the software that we used to finalize its beginning.”
SIMPACK simulation software was used by the team between 1996 and 2004 as the Philae lander was being created. Now, it is part of Dassault Systèmes SIMULIA portfolio, which provides advanced simulation software to a number of industries, including Aerospace & Defense, and Life Sciences.
“We tested in an earth gravity environment to obtain force, joint and other specifications in our models, then just switched the gravity environment with terrestrial to cometary to get a nice…impression of how the actual lander would behave in an environment one cannot really test on earth,” Hilchenback said, explaining the large role the software had in helping Philae make a safe eventual landing.
Despite the protection granted by SIMPACK’s testing, the rougher landing is what forced the Philae to hibernate. According to a great article by the New York Times, the landing problems prevented the craft from fully opening its solar panels. After working for sixty hours, the lander’s batteries died.
While scientists knew it was a possibility the lander would re-awaken, they also had their fears about the safety of the craft. They worried that the lander may have frozen over in the comet’s -150® F atmosphere.
“We’re really excited to have the mission back in one piece, at least for a few more months,” Mark McCaughrean , a senior science advisor at the European Space Agency, told the New York Times. Check out the article for more of his interesting insight.
Now that Philae is back, scientists are hoping that the craft will capture information about the comet through experiments, as well as photos of its environment. Contact with Philae so far has been short, only 85 seconds, the BBC reported. However, they remain hopeful that they will hear back from Philae throughout the coming days.
We can’t wait to see what adventures lay ahead for the craft and what it may discover as it makes its way across the comet.