European Space Agency says it has landed a spacecraft on a speeding comet – a cosmic 1st

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 first designed to answer big questions about the universe.

DARMSTADT, Germany — 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 first designed to answer big questions about the universe.

The landing on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko required immense precision, as even the slightest error could have resulted in cosmic calamity.

Indications were that the spacecraft touched down almost perfectly, save for an unplanned bounce, said Stephan Ulamec, head of the lander operation.

But thrusters that were meant to push the lander, called Philae, onto the surface, and harpoons that would have anchored it to the comet failed to deploy properly. Initial data from the spacecraft indicated that it lifted off again, turned and then came to rest.

“Today we didn’t just land once; we maybe even landed twice,” said Ulamac.

Scientists were still trying to fully understand what happened but so far most of the instruments are working fine and sending back data as hoped, he added.

The landing team at mission control in Darmstadt first had to sweat through a tense seven-hour countdown that began when Philae dropped from the agency’s Rosetta space probe as both it and the comet hurtled through space at 41,000 mph (66,000 kph).

During the lander’s descent, scientists were powerless to do anything but watch, because its vast distance from Earth — 500 million kilometres (311 million miles) — made it impossible to send instructions in real time.

Finally, at 1603 GMT (11:03 a.m. EST), the agency received a signal that the washing machine-sized lander had touched down on the comet’s icy surface.

While further checks were needed to ascertain the state of the 220-pound (100-kilogram) lander, the fact that it was resting on the surface of the comet was already a huge success — the highlight of Rosetta’s decade-long mission to study comets and learn more about the origins of these celestial bodies.

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.

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.

Rosetta and Philae will accompany the comet as it races past the sun and becomes increasingly active in the rising temperatures. Between them, they will use 21 different instruments to collect data that scientists hope will help explain the origins and evolution of celestial bodies, and maybe even life on Earth.

Mission manager Paolo Ferri said there was no time to celebrate, because the lander had only enough battery power to operate for up to 64 hours. After that it will have to recharge, using solar panels to eke out an extra hour of operations each day.

Ferri said communications with the lander needed to be stabilized, as there were intermittent connection problems after the touchdown. In the meantime, all the data that Philae collects is safely being stored for later transmission, he said.

Wednesday’s landing capped a 6.4 billion-kilometre (4 billion-mile) journey that began a decade ago. 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 travelling in tandem ever since.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The expansion of the Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre has been discussed for over a decade. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Red Deer hospital expansion gets about $6 million in 2021 provincial budget

According to the government’s three-year plan, the project will get $60 million by 2024.

Sylvan Lake's Winter Village lured many visitors to the town this winter. The town has launched a new contest to attract a new business.
(Black Press file photo)
Sylvan Lake offering rent-free storefront space to lure new businesses

Winning business proposal will get a storefront space rent-free for a year

Red Deer Rebels forward Josh Tarzwell is hoping to pick up where he left off last season as the 2020-21 WHL season kicks off Friday in Red Deer against the Medicine Hat Tigers. (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)
Rebels set to host Tigers in WHL season opener

24-game WHL Alberta only season kicks off night Friday at the Centrium

Alberta reported an additional 399 cases of COVID-19 Thursday, on 9,217 tests, for a test positivity rate of 4.3 per cent. (Image courtesy CDC)
Red Deer down to 562 active COVID-19 cases

8 new COVID-19 deaths, 399 additional COVID-19 cases

Whistle Stop Cafe east of Mirror was open for sit-down dining in defiance of health restrictions earlier this year. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Whistle Stop Cafe owner’s legal battle continues

Government stopped closure order legal action but Public Health Act breach still a live issue

An arrest by Red Deer RCMP is facing online scrutiny. No charges have been laid and the incident is still under investigation. (Screenshot of YouTube video)
Red Deer RCMP investigating violent arrest caught on video

Police say officer ‘acted within the scope of his duties’

Kiiwetinoong MPP Sol Mamakwa holds up water collected from Neskantaga First Nation, where residents were evacuated over tainted water in October, during a rally at Queen's Park in Toronto on Friday, Nov. 6, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Carlos Osorio
Feds didn’t supply enough resources to end water advisories on First Nations: auditor

Feds didn’t supply enough resources to end water advisories on First Nations: auditor

A dose of COVID-19 vaccine is prepared at a vaccination clinic in Montreal's Olympic Stadium on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
Quebec starts COVID-19 vaccination bookings for seniors; those in Ontario must wait

Quebec starts COVID-19 vaccination bookings for seniors; those in Ontario must wait

The corporate logo of Pembina Pipeline Corp. (TSX:PPL) is shown. Calgary-based Pembina Pipeline Corp. says it is "doing what is right for the country and fellow Canadians" by shipping unit trains full to propane to Quebec. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO
Pembina Pipeline posts $1.2 billion loss on petrochemical, LNG project impairments

CALGARY — Pembina Pipeline Corp. is reporting a $1.2 billion net fourth-quarter… Continue reading

Rode
College esports league off to a good start

RDC hockey Kings veteran Jacob Wozney has been involved in esports for… Continue reading

This combination photo shows the cover of "Later," left, and author Stephen King. Readers may know him best for “Carrie,” “The Shining” and other bestsellers commonly identified as “horror,” but King has long had an affinity for other kinds of narratives, from science fiction and prison drama to the Boston Red Sox. (Hard Case Crime via AP, left, and AP)
Stephen King talks about crime, creativity and new novel

Stephen King talks about crime, creativity and new novel

A Loblaws store is seen in Montreal on March 9, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Loblaw’s discount stores on upswing after ‘flight to conventional’ stores: president

Loblaw’s discount stores on upswing after ‘flight to conventional’ stores: president

Butter and sourdough bread is shown at a house in Vernon, B.C. on Wednesday, February 24, 2021. A Quebec dairy farmers' group is calling on milk producers to stop feeding palm oil or its derivatives to livestock as controversy churns over how these supplements affect the consistency of butter. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jesse Johnston
Dairy farmers lobby asks members to stop using palm oil in feed after ‘buttergate’

Dairy farmers lobby asks members to stop using palm oil in feed after ‘buttergate’

Canadian actor and director Sarah Polley poses for a photo as she promotes "Alias Grace," at the Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto on Wednesday September 13 , 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
Oscar-nominated screenwriter Sarah Polley to release first book in March 2022

Oscar-nominated screenwriter Sarah Polley to release first book in March 2022

Most Read