Hundreds of millions of miles from Earth, a European spacecraft made history Wednesday by successfully landing on the icy, dusty surface of a speeding comet — an audacious cosmic first designed to answer big questions about the origin of the universe.
As the Philae lander touched down on the comet known as 67P, the landing craft took to Twitter to make the announcement: “Touchdown! My New Address: 67P!”
The European Space Agency celebrated the cosmic achievement after sweating through a tense seven-hour countdown that began when the Philae lander dropped from the agency’s Rosetta space probe toward the comet as both hurtled through space at 41,000 mph (66,000 kph).
The lander touched down on the icy surface of 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko using harpoons and ice screws at 1603 GMT (11:03 a.m. EST).
The mission began a decade ago as the Rosetta orbiter began its long journey from Earth to the comet, a distance of more than 310 million miles or 500 million kilometers.
CCTV America’s Jim Spellman reported this story from the Washington, D.C.
Cosmic 1st: European spacecraft lands on cometCCTV America's Jim Spellman reported from the Washington, D.C. newsroom for more on this historical space mission after nearly 19 years in the making.
While further checks are needed to ascertain the state of the lander, the fact that it is resting on the surface of the speeding comet is already a huge success. It marks the highlight of the decade-long Rosetta mission to study comets and learn more about the origins of these celestial bodies.
“We had a very clear signal there and we also received data from the lander, housekeeping data, and also science data. That’s the very good news.”
But the news hasn’t been all good: The comet has very little gravity and Philae may not [be] stable,” said Stephan Ulamec, a landing manager at Rosetta Mission Control.
The head of the European Space Agency underlined Europe’s pride in having achieved a unique first ahead of its U.S. counterpart NASA.
“We are the first to have done that, and that will stay forever,” said ESA director-general Jean-Jacques Dordain.
Scientists have likened the trillion or so comets in our solar system to time capsules that are virtually unchanged since the earliest moments of the universe.
“By studying one in enormous detail, we can hope to unlock the puzzle of all of the others,” said Mark McCaughrean, a senior scientific adviser to the mission.
Rosetta and Philae now plan to accompany the comet as it races past the sun and becomes increasingly active in the rising temperatures. Using 21 different instruments, the twin spacecraft will collect data that scientists hope will help explain the origins and evolution of celestial bodies, and maybe even life on Earth.
“The science starts the minute we get down to the ground,” McCaughrean said.
Rosetta, which was launched in 2004, had to slingshot three times around Earth and once around Mars before it could work up enough speed to chase down the comet, which it reached in August, with a total distance of 6.4 billion kilometers or 4 billion miles. Rosetta and the comet have been traveling in tandem ever since.
The mission will also give researchers the opportunity to test the theory that comets brought organic matter and water to Earth billions of years ago, said Klim Churyumov, one of the two astronomers who discovered the comet in 1969.
Earlier Wednesday, ESA controllers clapped and embraced at mission control in Darmstadt as they got confirmation that the unmanned Rosetta had successfully released the 220-pound (100-kilogram), washing machine-sized Philae lander.
During the descent, scientists were powerless to do anything but watch, because the vast distance to Earth — 500 million kilometers (311 million miles) — made it impossible to send instructions in real time. It takes more than 28 minutes for a command to reach Rosetta.
The landing is the highlight of a decade-long mission to link up with comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.
Timeline of key moments during Rosetta’s incredible trip:
- March 2, 2004: Europe’s unmanned probe Rosetta takes off from Kourou, French Guiana, after a series of delays, including an abandoned January 2003 launch window because of a rocket problem.
- Feb. 25, 2007: Rosetta carries out a close flyby of Mars. European Space Agency’s mission control breaks out in applause after the end of 15 tense minutes of radio silence as the craft passes behind the Red Planet.
- Sept. 5, 2008: Probe successfully passes close to an asteroid 250 million miles from Earth. The spacecraft loses its radio signal for 90 minutes as planned during the flyby of the Steins asteroid, also known as Asteroid 2867.
- July 10, 2010: Between Mars and Jupiter, Rosetta transmits its first pictures from the largest asteroid ever visited by a satellite after it flies by Lutetia as close as 1,900 miles (3,200 kilometers). It is the closest look to date at the Lutetia asteroid.
- Jan. 20, 2014: Waking after almost three years of hibernation, Rosetta sends its first signal back to Earth. Systems had been powered down in 2011 to conserve energy, leaving scientists in the dark for 31 months.
- Aug. 6, 2014: Rosetta swings alongside comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko somewhere between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.
- Nov. 12, 2014: The probe releases the Philae lander and it drops to the comet’s surface. Seven hours later, Philae touches down on the comet.
Report compiled with information CCTV America and AP reports.
Ryan Faith of VICE News discusses Rosetta comet landing
CCTV America interviewed Ryan Faith, the defense and national security editor at the international news channel, VICE News, about the comet landing.