History was made by the European Space Agency (ESA) on Nov. 12. Their washing-machine sized space probe, named Philae, touched down on a comet after traveling 6.4 billion miles in space.
This project is monumental, and dates back all the way back to the late 1970’s, when the idea was first pitched. Comets are one of the oldest bodies in the solar system, and studying them can help us better understand the origins of the universe. Although the project was approved in 1993, it wasn’t officially launched until March 2, 2004 after scientists chose a prime target comet. The journey took nearly a decade.
Once it left Earth, the Rosetta spacecraft, carrying Philae, set off on a wild chase around the solar system to find the comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko, better known as Comet 67P. It required four gravity assists for its journey, one by Mars and three by Earth. It entered deep-space hibernation in 2011, and exited hibernation on Jan. 20, 2014.
On Aug. 6, 2014, the spacecraft reached the comet and orbited around it for three months, recording data. Finally, on Nov. 12, the Philae probe touched down on Comet 67P. See the magnificent landing photos below.
What’s miraculous about the landing is the fact that the probe bounced off the surface of the comet twice. Due to the comet’s low gravity, Philae weighs only one gram – about the weight of a paper clip! According to Space.com, the bounce was due to its landing system, harpoons and a reverse thruster, failing to initiate upon landing. The probe finally settled at the foot of an icy cliff, just a short distance away from its target-landing site.
The Guardian reported on Nov. 16 that Philae has gone into a hibernation mode that could be endless after running low on power. Its batteries cannot be recharged because the steep, icy cliff it’s resting under is blocking sunlight from reaching the solar panels. Thankfully, Philae still managed to transmit all of its data for the main mission before running out of power.
Though Philae is now unable to establish communication with Earth, the mission is still being considered a huge success. This is the first time an Earth-borne spacecraft has set foot on a comet hurtling through space.
Though we have progressed far from the first moon landing in 1969, we are still taking giant leaps for mankind – leaps that stretch over billions of miles.