Scientists made history last week by landing a probe on a comet for the first time! The probe, called Philae, was part of the Rosetta mission, which was launched by the European Space Agency in 2004. The mission was designed to study comet 67P (also known as Churyumov-Gerasimenko), a 2.5-mile-wide ball of dust and ice that orbits our sun every 6.5 years.
The landing was the result of a 10-year journey to the far reaches of the solar system by the Rosetta spacecraft. Last August, Rosetta finally reached the comet and entered into orbit around it—another historic first for a spacecraft!
Rosetta has been taking photos to map the comet since then. The maps helped scientists determine where they should attempt to land the Philae probe on the morning of November 12.
That day, European Space Agency scientists waited in the mission control room to find out whether the lander safely made it to the comet’s surface. The probe’s descent from the spacecraft to the surface of the comet took seven nail-biting hours! The good news came in just after 11 AM: “We are on the comet,” announced Stephan Ulamec, the Philae Lander Manager.
Unfortunately, the landing was a bit bumpy. After bouncing twice on the surface, Philae landed in the shadow of a cliff. In this shady spot, the solar-powered lander is not getting enough sunlight to power its batteries. The lander went into hibernation mode over the weekend. It may be months before the device gets enough sunlight to recharge its batteries.
Before powering down, Philae was able to collect samples for scientists to study and learn about the comet’s composition. This information could help experts determine whether the comets that struck Earth billions of years ago supplied our planet with its water.
In its 10-year journey to chase down the comet 67P, the Rosetta spacecraft traveled 6.4 billion kilometers. How many miles did Rosetta travel? (Hint: there are 1.6 kilometers in a mile.)