As the world celebrates the remarkable landing of the robotic Philae lander on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko ten years after it was launched from earth, scientists are looking forward to analysing the first panoramic and 3D shots of the comet’s landscape taken from ground level.
The pictures will be taken by seven cameras developed in Neuchâtel by the Swiss Centre for Electronics and Microtechnology (CSEM). These are the first-ever high-definition miniaturized cameras, developed between 1998 and 2001– before the ubiquitous smartphone camera and at a time when space-quality cameras were almost the size of the lander itself. “It was a gargantuan feat to build something so small, and many thought it was impossible. Luckily the watchmaking and microtechnical expertise found in Switzerland was up to the challenge,” explains CSEM researcher Ivar Kjelberg.
The cameras make up part of CIVA (Comet Infrared and Visible Analyzer), one of ten on-board instruments that will facilitate Philae’s analysis of the comet. Not only are the cameras miniature – about the sitze of a postage stamp – but they are also robust enough to resist the violent vibrations of take-off and the extremely low temperatures ( -150° C) encountered en route to the comet that is hurtling through space towards the sun at speeds of up to 135,000 km/hour. Philae travelled a cumulative distance of over 6.4 billion kilometres to reach comet 67P, or Tchouri as it is known in the Swiss media.
Weighing 100 grams each, these miniature cameras, which are able to take high-definition black and white images, fit in the palm of a hand. There are seven identical visible spectrum cameras on the lander: five to take single images and one pair for a stereoscopic, or 3D, view of the comet’s landscape. And each camera is a jewel of engineering prowess: a complex system comprising highly miniaturized electronics, state of the art miniature optics, signal conditioning and processing as well as data communication interface and a customized mechanical interface.
Philae is tracked and operated from the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) at Darmstadt in Germany. It is named after the Philae obelisk which bears a bilingual inscription that was used, along with the Rosetta Stone, to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics – just as scientists hope to unlock the secrets of the solar system with this mission.
These pictures were actually taken using the Swiss cameras. Enjoy the whole sensory experience – listen to the sound of the comet as well.