Space probe lands on comet

European Space Agency illustration of probe lander Philae landing on a comet (ESA)


It’s something that has never been done before. For the first time, a spacecraft has landed on a comet.

Experts say the mission will give us more insight into our own existence.

And the Rosetta mission was no easy task. The craft touched down on a comet as it sped through space at about 66-thousand kilometres an hour.

Thousands of times in our lives, we look out into the night sky — and view, more or less the same thing. The light from the moon. A distant blanket of stars. And mysteries we cannot see. But tonight, for the first time — the world is looking out at something we’ve never seen before — and back, to the beginning of time.

Wednesday, the European Space Agency (ESA) landed a scientific probe on the surface of a comet, somewhere just beyond the orbit of Mars. And while that in itself is an astoundingly difficult feat of mathematics and engineering, it’s also an exciting window into the creation of our solar system. To put it in physical human terms, it’s like looking at a zygote — the very first stage of embryonic life.

Imagine a mountain hurtling through space, and it’s moving at a speed 40 times faster than a speeding bullet.

Now imagine that mountain being so far away that you would have to travel around the earth 12,500 times just to equal the distance.

And finally, think of trying to gently place an object, the size of your family washing machine on that distant chunk of speeding rock, from an armchair at home, blindfolded.

Sound impossible? Well the European Space Agency did it.

Delaney: “This comet was formed 4.6 billion years ago, and in essence hasn’t changed in that period of time. So, we’re talking about the primitive or primordial material from which the earth was made.

Paul Delaney is an astronomer and physics professor at York University. He ranks the Philea landing as equal to the first moon landing in its difficulty and complexity. And although rocks from the moon may have been interesting, the information from Philea speaks to much deeper issues.

Delaney: “We’re asking very fundamentally; ‘Are we alone? Is there other life, in the universe? Comets probably hold literally the keys to understanding life in not just our solar system, but any planetary system.”

And while the answers to those questions may not alter your life in a practical way — the technology developed to accomplish this mission will.

Delaney: “Who knows where that technology is going to take us? I certainly don’t but I’ll guarantee you, it’s going to be integrated into our society.”

Scientists are already trying to interpret the sounds emitted by the comet as it speeds towards the sun. The Philae probe, likely will not survive more than a week or two, clutching tentatively, to the back of its frozen host — but already it is sending back information. Information never before available. Information reaching back, to the very birth of our planet.

And as the comet draws closer to the sun, Philae’s parent spacecraft, Rosetta, will race along with it — watching, testing, sampling — as the heat from the sun begins to melt its surface, and spawn a tail.

Yes, it’s more than a decade to get to this moment, but in many ways, the Rosetta mission, has just begun.

ESA is still working out some bugs with Philae as it works out bugs with intermittent communication, and the problematic harpoons, and landing screws, that were to anchor the probe to the comet.

But the fact that it is resting on the comet at all — and transmitting data already — is a major scientific success that ranks as one of the most outstanding feats of human achievement in the history, of our planet.


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