First the first time ever, humans have an outpost on a comet.
The European Space Agency’s 10-year Rosetta mission successfully landed its Philae probe on the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.
Fifty seconds after landing, Philae took a scheduled image and sent it back to earth. The comet is so far away that the image, traveling through space at the speed of light, took about 28 minutes to arrive.
Light only takes 9 minutes to travel from the Sun to earth.
This is the first image ever taken from the Philae lander. It is looking up at the Rosetta spacecraft, trailing the comet.
Shortly after landing on the comet, Philae tweeted.
Immediately after the image was released Philae tweeted ‘It’s me…landing on a comet and feeling good!’.
The separation of Philae from Rosetta was confirmed at 9.03am GMT today, and just after 11am GMT mission control in Darmstadt, Germany received a signal confirming the lander was working.
Throughout the day, the lander has been transmitting data and images back to Earth. ‘Everything looks really, really good,’ said Philae lander manager Stephan Ulamec.
However, the success of the mission hung in the balance because Philae has a faulty thruster, which means it may have had to rely solely on harpoons to attach itself to the surface.
Whether or not it was able to make the thruster work in time has yet to be revealed by Esa.
Landing a spacecraft on a comet will help scientists fill in gaps in our knowledge of how the solar system formed. Comets are thought to be rubble left over from the stellar and planetary formation process.
As engineering feats go, Philae’s successful landing on a comet, bodies that are notoriously unstable as they tumble through space as incredible speed, has to rank very high in all of human history. It amounts to not only firing a bullet at a bullet from millions of miles away, but successfully landing a bullet on a bullet, as the target bullet constantly tumbles.
The target comet is mindblowingly far from earth.
The mission to Rosetta took ten years from launch to touchdown, and many years of proposal and planning prior to that.