Philae: “I’m here, not there!”

The first image from the surface of a comet, returned to Earth by the Rosetta lander Philae, November 13th, 2014. image: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA
The first image from the surface of a comet, returned to Earth by the Rosetta lander Philae, November 12th, 2014. image: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA

Wednesday, November 12th saw a remarkable feat take place over 515,000,000 kilometres from Earth as a small robotic vehicle called Philae, and a part of the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission, landed on the surface of a comet, marking the very first time this has ever been achieved.

As I reported, immediately following the landing, getting a vehicle to rendezvous with a comet, enter orbit around it and deploy a lander to its surface isn’t easy – Rosetta is a mission 21 years old, with the spacecraft spending a decade of that time flying through space.

Mission control personnel react to the first telemetry received from Philae on it's initial contact with the surface of comet 67P/C-G
Mission control personnel react to the first telemetry received from Philae on its initial contact with the surface of comet 67P/C-G

Immediately following the landing, telemetry revealed things hadn’t gone to plan, although the lander itself was unharmed. Essentially, part of the landing system – a pair of harpoons designed to tether the lander to the comet’s surface as a direct result of the very weak gravity there – failed to operate as expected. Telemetry has shown that the tensioning mechanism and the harpoon activation process started, but the harpoons themselves did not fire. As a result, the vehicle actually “bounced” after its initial touch-down.

The initial touch-down was at 15:33 UT – precisely on schedule and on target. However, as the harpoons failed, the lander rose back up – possibly by as much as a kilometre – above the comet, before finally striking the surface again, two hours later. This means that even while celebrations over the initial landing were going on here on Earth (the initial signal confirming touchdown taking some 30 minutes to reach Earth), Philae had yet to make its second contact with the comet.

Philae (circled in red) en route to its landing site on 67P/C-G (visible top right)
Philae (circled in red) en route to its landing site on 67P/C-G (visible top right)

This eventually happened at 17:26 UT, and was followed by another bounce, this one of a much lesser force, before the lander came to rest at 17:33 UT.

One of the consequences of this bouncing is that the lander is not actually in its designated landing zone – the comet is tumbling through space, and thus turning under the lander as it bounced. This means that while Rosetta and Philae are communicating with one another, the spacecraft’s orbital position around the comet is not optimal for the lander’s position, and is being refined to better suit Philae’s new location. An initial adjustment was made overnight on the 12th/13th November, and further adjust is likely to be made on Friday, November 14th. Currently, communications can occur between the two vehicles for just under 4 hours out of every 13.

Philae mission manager Stephan Ulamec explains where it is belived the lander resides, represented by the blue triangle (ESA press conference, Thursday, November 14th)
Philae mission manager Stephan Ulamec explains where it is believed the lander resides, represented by the blue triangle (ESA press conference, Thursday, November 14th)

This bouncing may explain why there was an initial problem with communications between the lander and the Rosetta spacecraft, as reported immediately after the initial landing telemetry was received: Rosetta was expecting Philae to be at a certain fixed position on the comet, whereas the lander was still in motion, and “moving away” from the landing site as the comet rotated. The task now is for Rosetta to visually locate the lander – which given the current orbital positioning, may take a little time; the next passage of the spacecraft over the region of the landing site will not start until 19:27 UT this evening. Mission planners hope the sunlight reflected by the lander’s solar panels might help in identifying Philae’s exact position.

A core worry for the mission team is that Philae has in fact come down in an area of shadow, possibly in a depression and close to one or two rocky “walls”, and it appears to only be receiving direct sunlight for around 90-120 mins as the comet tumbles, rather than the 6-7 hours planned with the target landing point. This potentially has serious implications for the lander’s power and science regime, although it is hoped that Philae might be able to adjust its position somewhat – the craft actually has the capability of “hopping” around by flexing its landing legs.

Continue reading “Philae: “I’m here, not there!””

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The Lab go on tour – in-world

@Second Life, the Lab’s official Twitter feed, has announced a public meet-up with users to explore Meauxle Bureaux. The gathering will take place at 12:00 noon PST on Friday, November 14th, 2014.

The announcement via twitter
The announcement via twitter

Meauxle Bureaux is the new “Mole Town” which utilises (with the creator’s permission) Kayle Matzerath’s Lumenaria build from Fantasy Faire 2013 as a home for the Linden Department of Public Works (LDPW) moles.

Following a lead from Ciaran Laval, I flew over to the town to have a look around myself at the start of November, having delighted in the Lumenaria build back at the time of Fantasy Faire. It’s a great place to visit.

Meauxle Bureaux - join the Lab there on Friday, November 14th at 12:00 noon for a tour
Meauxle Bureaux – join the Lab there on Friday, November 14th at 12:00 noon for a tour

So, if you fancy a look around the town, and fancy meeting a Linden or two (or three or four …) why not see if you can hop over to  Meauxle Bureaux this coming Friday?

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Iribe: consumer Oculus Rift “many months” away

The Oculus Crescent Bay prototype showing the Samsung Gear-type head harness with motion tracking sensors on the back and the integrated headphones
The Oculus Crescent Bay prototype showing the Samsung Gear-type head harness with motion tracking sensors on the back and the integrated headphones (image via Oculus VR)

Brendan Iribe, CEO of Oculus VR was at the Web Summit event in Dublin Ireland at the start of November, where he sat down for a conversation with Wired’s Peter Rubin to discuss the latest state of play about the Oculus Rift, VR in general – and to deliver a small warning to others also involved in the headset market. He also indicated that the consumer version of Oculus Rift isn’t necessarily as close to reaching the market as some might think.

In terms of the Oculus Rift, he was upbeat about the latest prototype version, Crescent Bay, which appeared in September and which is said to be a “massive leap” forward in comparison to the Oculus DK2 hardware that shipped to developers in June and July.

Crescent Bay incorporates 360-degree positional head tracking through the inclusion of sensors on the back of the redesigned and improved head harness, higher resolution, wider field of view, a lighter body, and integrated audio (via Realspace 3D). Iribe said of the new prototype, “Crescent Bay is where it all begins: that quality level.”

Oculus Rift CEO Brendan Iribe (left), speaking at the 2014 Web Summit in Dublin, Ireland, November 4th
Oculus Rift CEO Brendan Iribe (left), in conversation with Peter Rubin from Wird Magazine at the 2014 Web Summit in Dublin, Ireland, November 4th (image via VentureBeat)

However, he also cautioned against people getting too excited over thought that the Rift is just around the corner. “What can I say on that?” he replied to Peter Rubin’s enquiry as to when a consumer version might appear. He went on:

We want to get it right. We really do. We’ve gone out there and we’ve set this bar and said, “we are going to get it right, and we’re not going to ship until we get it right” … We’re getting very close … We want it to be a beautiful product; there’s no reason it can’t be a beautiful product … so we still have a way to go, and we’re still working on a number of things, but we’re getting much closer. We like to say it’s months, not necessarily years, away [but] it’s many months, not a few months.

He then continued, “Crescent Bay, I’ll go on the record as saying that hardware-wise for the headset, it’s arguably almost there for the consumer product, and now there’s a few other parts. So we are finalising the specifications for that consumer version, and the headset is largely finalised.”

Michael Bormann of Engadget tires-out the Crescent Bay Oculus Rift prototype

One of the issues remaining in the way of a launch doesn’t lie with the headset – it is squarely down to the suitability of input devices. Iribe notes that keyboard, game pads and even gesture devices aren’t ideal; there needs to be some form of visual element (e.g. seeing your hands), and there needs to be a tactile element as well. People need to be able to touch, feel, and sense a button reacting to being pressed.He went on to say:

We’re trying to focus now on is, what is that VR input? Where does VR input begin? We don’t know the final Holy Grail of VR input; we have kind-of any idea of VR vision being a pair of sunglasses, which we’d like to get to [but] VR input, we’re still R&Ding, we’re still looking at. But that’s definitely a big focus for us.

The implication of his comments, and those that follow an observation made somewhat in jest by Rubin suggest that Oculus VR may be looking to develop their own input device, or perhaps work in close partnership with another company in the development of an “Oculus ready” (my term, not Iribe’s) device. Certianly, having grown from employing just 50 people prior to Facebook acquiring them, to almost 250 personnel today, it is not inconceivable that Oculus VR may be poking at ideas for its own inpute device.

What is the best VR imput tool... and are Oculus VR lloking to produce their own?
What is the best VR imput tool… and are Oculus VR lloking to produce their own?

The subject of VR’s “killer application” also comes up in the conversation, and Iribe states he feels it is too early to really say, although he acknowledges it will initially have a big rooting in games and entertainment – hardly surprising, given the Rift’s pedigree. “There’ll be a market of a lot of really fun entertainment experiences in VR where you’ll feel like you’re in the game or in the movie, and it’s going to be awesome,” he said.

But in terms of going mainstream, he very much sees VR’s future hinging on communications:

For me, the real media where this is going to really transform the world long-term, is when we can have face-to-face communications…. Most people travel, and we get on airplanes and cars to go have face-to-face communications… If you could, in the future throw on a pair of sunglasses, and we can have that same conversation with people around the world, all feeling like you’re in the same place, face-to-face, looking at each other, looking at each other’s eyes, looking in each other’s mouths; we may look like funny little avatars, we may look a little more human… that’s really transformative.

Could VR be as transformative in how we communicate and access information as the mobile 'phone has been?
Could VR be as transformative in how we communicate and access information as the mobile ‘phone has been?

Were this to happen, and VR offer the same ease of use and access to communications and information as the smartphone, Iribe is convinced it could have as deep an impact on the way we communicate as the mobile ‘phone itself. “To have virtual reality where you can have these face-to-face communications, that’s going to appeal to billions of people,” he said.

However, he also had a warning for other companies also trying to bring VR headsets to the market – there have already been at least two Oculus clones making waves (the ANTVR being one), with Sony also working on its Morpheus headset for the PS4. And that warning is: don’t launch until you’ve solved the problem of motion sickness. In giving the warning, Iribe seemed to be particularly focused on Sony.

We’re really looking forward to this as an industry, and looking forward to it being an industry that takes off… We’re really looking forward to more people jumping into the VR space, and we’re doing our best to be very open, supporting others. At the same time we’re a little worried about some of the bigger companies putting out product that isn’t quite ready. That elephant in the room is disorientation and motion sickness. That’s something I view as, two or three years from now, will really be behind us… We feel pretty confident that our consumer product will have solved that; and we’re really encouraging other companies, especially big companies, “don’t put out a product until you have solved that!”

Iribe's warning to Sony, "Don't launch until you've solved the problems of motion sickness"
Iribe’s warning to Sony, “Don’t launch until you’ve solved the problems of motion sickness” (image via Sony)

To this end, Oculus VR’s openness on matter has been such that they’ve invited senior representatives from Sony to come and learn from the lessons the company gained from users’ experiences with the DK1 and the DK2 and to see the Crescent Bay prototype ahead of its launch, offering them the advice that they should “make sure your product is as good or close!”

Elsewhere in the interview, Iribe gives some fascinating insight into a number of topics, including his role as CEO of Oculus VR, the impact of being acquired by Facebook, the company’s relationship with the VR community, the worries those within the company had (rightly so as it turned out) over the potential backlash they’d face if they accepted Facebook’s offer, and more. All of which makes for a fascinating 19-and-a-half minutes viewing.