Frosty Philae feelin’ fine


The Philae comet lander is fine – hibernating until next summer when extra sunlight can recharge its batteries and it can continue its surface studies. Temperatures where it landed run about -245F. The science behind the new movie ‘Interstellar’ – the director used the most accurate models of objects and phenomena he could find. Not to make the movie more believable, but indicating that accurate science content is an important defining commodity that should be applied – not denied – wherever possible.

November 24, 2014


[Dave Heller] The new film Interstellar features a team of astronauts traveling through a worm hole in search of a new habitable planet. Let’s get a review from Derrick Pitts, movie critic and chief astronomer at the Franklin Institute. Derrick: Two thumbs up on this one?

[Derrick Pitts] I believe it’s a wonderful story, and I think that the mechanisms used to tell the story really work for me.

The effects are great, especially if you watch it in an IMAX. Is it grounded in science though?

It’s grounded in science to a point. And we have to remember that this is entertainment — this is not a documentary. So there’s no real requirement that the science be correct.

But how about this premise of a “worm hole” — kind of a space time shortcut?

That’s a fabulous, fabulous mechanism to get people across space and time in the space that’s available for the director to use to tell the story. And I love the way in which he actually did weave together those things that are real in science and those things that are not real in science to help move the story along.

With so much of your personal interest on education, do you think this could serve as a vehicle, as it were, for people to become enchanted with astronomy?

Absolutely, because what it does is it asks you to think about the reality of possibilities of bending space and time under extreme circumstances in the universe that really do exist. I mean, black holes do exist. And they do have very, very odd influences on their surrounding space. And so when we try to get a better understanding of how the universe, how galaxies, how stars even work, we also have to allow our minds to wrap around some of these odd effects that are generated by super massive objects like black holes.

But worm holes are too odd to exist.

They’re a little bit too far out. On paper you can make worm holes exist mathematically. However they can only exist for a very short period of time and not very big at all. But that’s on paper. In reality, worm holes don’t exist and can’t exist.

The movie did provide a stirring representation of the relativity of time.

Yes indeed it did. It really did a beautiful job of showing that if you spend too much time close to a black hole, then for you time is going to pass so much slower while folks standing at greater and greater distances from the black hole, time will pass so much faster for them. So, those down close to the vincity of the singularity — time seems normal for them. While their compatriots who are up in an orbiting spacecraft see decades go by while they down on the planet close to the singularity spend only hours.

Derrick, remember last week’s cold temperatures? Well that’s nothing compared to what the European space lander’s enduring this winter.

Oh indeed. The lander Philae is having a good ‘ol time, actually, out in the 250 degrees below zero temperatures on the surface of Comet 67P.

Kinda hunkering down.

It really is hunkering down and inadvertently it’s found itself a little corner that it can nest in. When Philae landed on the surface it bounced several times and in that bouncing it ended up putting itself, ah, sort of wedging itself in a corner, if you will, under an overhang of rock. Now, in that corner the temperatures have been identified on the surface as being as I said 250 degrees or so below zero. But nonetheless, for the 60 hours of battery life that the lander had available to use before it ran out of power because of not enough sunlight landing on solar panels, it actually did quite a bit of work. And good work, too. So when you think about what was accomplished, this was a spacecraft that was put down on the head of a comet that’s moving at 11 kilometers per second, it’s really racing along through the solar system — all of those things put together is a tremendous achievement to be able to land on the surface. AND still do science. AND still have some capability for doing more science in the not-so-distant future.

So is its season roughly analogous to our winter? Is it waking up in March or April?

It will, but it’s not analogous in any way shape or form because what’s going to cause the seasons to change for the lander is the position of the comet in relation to the sun. As the comet comes to perihelion over the next several months, of course, more sunlight will become available, the nucleus of the comet will heat up and the seasons will definitely change, but things won’t get too much warmer — maybe 100 degrees Farenheit below zero. As it gets closer to the sun, if it was really close, it might completely melt down. But that’s not what’s expected for this comet nucleus at all. So the lander will see a lovely spring, a little bit of a hint of summer, and then if all goes according to plan, it’ll go back into a very long deep freeze as the comet moves out away from the sun and the inner portion of the solar system, back out to deep solar system space where things will cool off dramatically.

  • philae

    The combination image of several partially enlarged photographs released by the European Space Agency, ESA, Monday, Nov. 17, 2014 shows the journey of Rosetta’s Philae lander as it approached and then rebounded from its first touchdown on Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko on Nov. 12, 2014. The series of images was captured by Rosetta’s OSIRIS camera from a distance of 15.5km (9.6 miles) from the comet surface over a 30 minute period spanning the first touchdown. The time of each of image has marked been marked by source on the corresponding insets and is in GMT. A comparison of the touchdown area shortly before and after first contact with the surface is also provided. From left to right, the images show Philae descending towards and across the comet before touchdown. (AP Photo/European Space Agency)

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