Added by Erik West on November 12, 2014
After a 10-year journey the European Space Agency’s unmanned Rosetta probe successfully released a lander toward the surface of a comet today in a historic rendezvous with the fast-moving lump of dust and ice.
The landing occours at 14:03GMT/UTC and is the culmination of a 10-year journey to study a four-kilometer wide comet that’s traveling at about 66,000 km/h and is about 500m km from earth. The landing is being performed by a separate lander, named Philae, that has been travaling piggyback on the Rosetta satellite.
Update: 14:17GMT – Landing confirmed….ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain said, “This type of success not from sky..hard work expertise. The only way to reconsie risk and success is experties…this is why…we have demonstrated that eurpean expertise in research centers ..we are the first to have done that”
“No European country alone can realize mission of this scale – we can only do it by working together,” said Brigitte Zypries, German Parliamentary State Secretary, Federal Government Coordinator of German Aerospace
Update: 15:46GMT: Matt Taylor, ESA Rosetta project scientist said, “Today’s successful landing is undoubtedly the cherry on the icing of a 4 km-wide cake, but we’re also looking further ahead and onto the next stage of this ground-breaking mission, as we continue to follow the comet around the Sun for 13 months, watching as its activity changes and its surface evolves.”
Philae lander manager, Stephan Ulamec, said “It’s on its own now. We’ll need some luck not to land on a boulder or a steep slope.”
If successful, it will be the first time that a spacecraft has landed on a comet. Confirmation of a landing should reach Earth by about 14:33 UTC. That will have been half an hour after the landing actually happened, due to the amount of time it takes data from the spacecraft to reach Earth.
ESA announced early Wednesday that the 100-kilogram lander’s active descent system, which uses thrust to prevent the craft from bouncing off the comet’s surface, could not be activated. Instead, the agency is relying on ice screws and a harpoon system to secure the lander.
Hours later, mission controllers clapped and embraced as the lander’s separation was confirmed.
“Philae has gone – it’s on its path down to the comet,” Rosetta flight director Andrea Accomazzo said. “We are all glad that it worked flawlessly in the past minutes.”
About two hours after the separation was confirmed, scientists said they had re-established contact with the lander, as expected. “Now we can follow it on its descent,” said Paolo Ferri, head of mission operations at ESA.
The washing machine-sized lander is supposed to drift down to the comet, and latch on using harpoons and screws. During the descent, scientists are powerless to do anything but watch, because the vast distance to Earth — 500 million kilometres — makes it impossible to send instructions in real time. It takes more than 28 minutes for a command to reach Rosetta.
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. Rosetta and the comet have been traveling in tandem ever since.
If the lander’s mission is successful, Rosetta and Philae plan to accompany the comet as it hurtles 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.
Tantalizingly, 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.
The European Space Agency says even if Philae’s landing doesn’t succeed, the 1.3 billion-euro ($1.8 billion) mission won’t be a failure because Rosetta will be able to perform about 80 per cent of the scientific mission on its own.