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Mission Rosetta: First to Land on a Comet
Nov 15, 2014

On 12 November, ESA's (European Space Agency) Rosetta mission soft-landed its Philae probe on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the first time in history that such an extraordinary feat has been achieved. During the next phase of the mission, Rosetta will accompany the comet through perihelion (August 2015) until the nominal end of the mission. On its 10 year journey towards comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the spacecraft has passed by two asteroids: 2867 Steins (in 2008) and 21 Lutetia (in 2010). The spacecraft entered deep-space hibernation mode in June 2011, and 'woke up' on 20 January 2014.

The safe, but precarious, touchdown of the lander gives scientists a unique chance to ride onboard a comet and study from the surface what happens as its activity ramps up as it gets closer to the sun. The first images beamed back from the lander’s descent revealed a dramatic landscape of pits and precipices, craters and boulders. However, there have been gaps in its radio link with the orbiting Rosetta mothership.

The £1bn ($1.58bn) Rosetta mission aims to unlock the mysteries of comets, made from ancient material that predates the birth of the solar system. In the data Rosetta and Philae collect, researchers hope to learn more of how the solar system formed and how comets carried water and complex organics to the planets, preparing the stage for life on Earth.

Space agencies have sent probes to comets before, but not like this. In 1986, NASA’s Ice mission flew through the tail of Halley’s comet. In 2005, the agency’s Deep Impact spacecraft fired a massive copper block at comet Temple 1. But none before now has landed.

The feat marks a profound success for the European Space Agency (ESA), which launched the Rosetta spacecraft more than 10 years ago from its Kourou spaceport in French Guiana. Since blasting off in March 2004, Rosetta and its lander Philae have travelled more than 6bn kilometres to catch up with the comet, which orbits the sun at speeds up to 135,000km/h.


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