Earth to 67P

November 13, 2014

It’s not every day you get a tweet from a comet, but on November 12, that’s exactly what came from Comet 67P, located about 310 million miles from Earth. “Touchdown! My new address: 67P!”

 

Welcome_to_a_comet

Photo credit: ESA

The Rosetta Mission took a giant step forward on Wednesday when the Philae lander settled, or perhaps bounced, onto the surface of a comet far, far away. This is the first time scientists have managed to land a space probe on a comet. European Space Agency scientists and executives traded high fives and hugs, and even the news that there may have been a landing glitch did little to subdue their celebration.

Because gravity is very weak on Comet 67P, Philae was equipped with anchors that were supposed to bolt the lander to the surface of the comet. But those harpoons failed to fire, so the spacecraft isn’t secure.

Despite this, the Rosetta mission is a success.

Scientists hope to find answers about the evolution of our solar system through experiments done by Philae, including testing the surface of the comet, measuring the magnetic field and interaction between the comet and solar wind, and even gathering deeper samples of the comet for testing.

Rosetta traveled 6.4 billion miles over ten years to come to this point. The Philae lander weighs about 220 pounds and is about the size of a washing machine. The comet is about 2 ½ miles in diameter. Getting a spacecraft onto a piece of rock that small, so far away is a huge accomplishment! One scientist described it as hitting a golf ball all the way onto the moon.

The name of the spaceship may sound familiar. The Rosetta Stone was a piece of rock found in Egypt in 1799 that had three different languages on it—two forms of Egyptian and Greek. Historians were able to finally decipher ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, and as a result, they discovered the culture of Ancient Egypt, which had been previously wrapped in mystery.

Will the Rosetta Mission provide the same insight into our current astronomical mystery? Will we learn how our solar system formed, how life on Earth began? This is a very exciting first step on the long road of space exploration.