This week’s landing on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko was a landmark in space history – not because the comet apparently bore a passing resemblance to the Kardashian backside that was competing for place in the news, but because surface gravity on 67P is about one millionth Earth’s. You don’t land so much as drift in and try like hell to stay there.
Add to that the fact that the cometary surface is like a rugged boulder-field and you have a recipe for Ultimate Challenge. That’s what made the landing so risky – and why ESA’s Philae lander was equipped with harpoons, ice-screws, and a down-firing thruster. When they failed, Philae landed on the comet, then bounced a kilometre back into space before the comet’s lazy gravity pulled it back. It was also a funny sort of bounce because the comet isn’t a sphere – it’s more like a dumb-bell. When Philae came down a second time, it bounced again before eventually settling.
For me the three-bounce landing (at 15:34, 17:25 and 17:32 GMT on 12 November) has a wow factor well beyond landing on a comet for the first time e-v-a-h. It’s also about gravity – and that means it’s about Einstein, one of my favourite physicists. Let me explain. Gravity doesn’t just cause celebrity butt-sag, after a while. It’s also why the comet’s where it is today. Fact is that 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko experienced a gravitationally-driven orbit change in 1959, when an encounter with Jupiter dropped its perehelion (closest approach to the Sun) from 2.7 to 1.3 astronomical units, giving the comet its current 6.45 year period. That’s why it’s where it is now.
Gravity is also how ESA got the probe to the comet. It was boosted, during a decade-long journey, by gravity assist manoeuvres, swing-bys of Earth and Mars that exploited space-time curvatures around the planets to accelerate the probe (three times) and decelerate it (once), without burning a single gram of fuel.
Ain’t physics neat. So just what is gravity? This looks like a stupid question. Actually, it isn’t.
The thing is, we think of gravity as a ‘force’. But actually, according to Einstein, it isn’t. We just perceive it as such. Here’s why. Science started looking at gravity in earnest when all-round super-geek Sir Isaac Newton worked out the math for the way gravity presented in everyday terms, which he published as part of his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica in 1687. His gravitational theory worked (and still works) well at everyday level – you could calculate how apples might fall, figure out planetary movements and so on (the key equation is , which defines the force between two point-sources of defined mass.) Newton’s triumph came in 1838 when astronomers realised that Uranus wasn’t quite where it should have been, based on the tugs of the known planets. French mathematician Urbain Leverrier and British mathematician John Couch Adams, independently, reverse-engineered the data to pinpoint where an unknown planet should be – and sure enough, there it was. Neptune.
But as science began fielding more data, it became evident that Newton’s equations didn’t account for everything – which is where Albert Einstein comes in. His General Theory of Relativity, published in 1917, is actually a theory of gravity. General Relativity supersedes Newton’s theory and portrays gravity by a totally different paradigm. To Newton, gravity was a force associated with mass. To Einstein, gravity was not a force directly innate to mass, but a product of the distortion of space-time caused by mass/energy, which bent the otherwise straight paths of particles (‘wavicles’), including light.
The proof came in May 1919 when British astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington measured the position of Mercury during a solar eclipse. Mercury’s perehelion – the closest point to the Sun – precessed (moved) in ways Newton couldn’t account for. Einstein could – and the planet turned up at precisely the place general relativity predicted. Voila – general relativity empirically proven for the first time. I don’t expect that Einstein leaped around going ‘woohoo’, but I probably would have. And general relativity has been proven many, many times since, in many different ways – not least through the GPS system, which has to account for it in order to work, because space-time distortion also causes time dilation. (If you want to live longer, relative to people at sea level, live atop a mountain).
Einstein’s key field equation, as it eventually evolved, is – which I am not going to explain other than to point out that it could be used to calculate the space-time distortion caused by the mass of, say, a Kardashian butt. This would be a hideous waste of brain-power, but at least means I’ve managed to put both Einstein’s field equation and a reference to society’s shallow obsession de jour in the same sentence. As an aside, I also think Einstein got things right in more ways than we know. I don’t say this idly.
One of the key things about both Newton and Einstein is that their theories treated clumps of particles – a mass such as the Earth for instance – as if the gravity originated in a mathematical point at the centre of the mass, even though the gravity (‘space-time distortion’) is produced by every particle within that mass. And that works perfectly at distance. But in detail an uneven distribution of mass – a mountain range, for instance, or even a celebrity butt – can introduce local pertubations. Small – but calculable. It’s because of ‘mass concentrations’ that satellites we put around the Moon eventually crash, for instance.
Which brings me back to the science adventure on 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, 28 light-minutes away outside the orbit of Mars. With a long-axis diameter of around 5 km and a composition of loose rocks held together by ices, 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko doesn’t have enough mass to bend space-time much. It has, in short, almost no gravity. Orbiting it, as Rosetta has been doing since 6 August, is more like a lazy drift around it. To land is more akin to docking than anything else. There’s not a lot to hold Philae ‘down’, and it doesn’t take much to bounce off. To that we have to add the dumb-bell shape of the comet’s nucleus, which produces complex (if gentle) space-time curvatures, meaning a ‘bounce’ on the comet isn’t going to be a simple parabola like a ‘bounce’ on Earth.
All of which underscores the tremendous technical achievement of the landing – bounces and all. The final lesson? Don’t bother with celebrity butt. Einstein and comets are FAR more interesting.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014