After more than a decade traveling through space, a robotic lander built by the European Space Agency has made the first-ever soft landing of a spacecraft on a comet.
Mission controllers at ESA’s mission operations center in Darmstadt, Germany, received a signal confirming that the Philae lander had touched down on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on Wednesday, Nov. 12, just after 8 a.m. PST/11 a.m. EST.
The lander is expected to send images from its landing site, named Agilkia. These will be the first images ever taken from a comet’s surface. Philae will also drill into the surface to study the composition, and witness close up how a comet changes as its exposure to the sun varies. With its primary battery, Philae will remain active on the surface for about two-and-a-half days. Philae’s mothership, the Rosetta spacecraft, will remain in orbit around the comet through 2015. The orbiter will continue detailed studies as the comet approaches the sun and then moves away.
In addition to their well-deserved reputation as beautiful cosmic objects, comets hold vital clues about our solar system’s history. They are considered primitive building blocks of the solar system that are literally frozen in time. Comets may have played a part in “seeding” Earth with water and, possibly, the basic ingredients for life.
NASA provided three of the 16 instruments on board the Rosetta orbiter. The NASA instruments are: the Microwave Instrument for Rosetta Orbiter (MIRO); Alice, an ultraviolet spectrometer; and the Ion and Electron Sensor (IES), which is part of a suite of five instruments.
The following statement is from John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, about the successful comet landing by the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft:
“We congratulate ESA on their successful landing on a comet today. This achievement represents a breakthrough moment in the exploration of our solar system and a milestone for international cooperation. We are proud to be a part of this historic day and look forward to receiving valuable data from the three NASA instruments on board Rosetta that will map the comet’s nucleus and examine it for signs of water.
“The data collected by Rosetta will provide the scientific community, and the world, with a treasure-trove of data. Small bodies in our solar system like comets and asteroids help us understand how the solar system formed and provide opportunities to advance exploration. We look forward to building on Rosetta’s success exploring our solar system through our studies of near earth asteroids and NASA’s upcoming asteroid sample return mission OSIRIS-REx. It’s a great day for space exploration.”