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22nd Sep 2018

European probe lands on comet 500 million km from earth

A European robot probe has made the first ever landing on a comet, but its status is currently unclear after harpoons failed to anchor it to the surface.

The Philae lander, which was launched from the Rosetta spacecraft, touched down on the 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko comet on Wednesday (12 November).

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“We are on the comet,” landing manager Stephan Ulamec said from the European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany.

The signal that the Philae had landed on the comet, currently 500 million kilometers away, reached earth on Wednesday at 17:03, Brussels time. The probe took about seven hours after it was launched from Rosetta to touch down.

When the confirmation came - it took about half an hour to reach earth - there were cheers and hugs at the mission control in Darmstadt.

It is hoped data from the comet will shed light on how the solar system looked like 4.5 billion years ago. Scientists might also learn more about the theory that the earth's water could have originated from comets.

However, it is uncertain whether the Philae lander is standing firm on the surface of the comet, which has a gravity about 10,000 times weaker than earth. The harpoons which were supposed to lock the lander to the surface did not fire.

It is possible that the lander is moving and bounced on the surface. “Maybe today we didn’t just land once, we even landed twice”, Ulamec said.

The head of mission operations Paolo Ferri said it is unlikely that Philae will bounce off the comet, he told New Scientist. “Frankly, given it has been on the surface for a few hours now, I would be very surprised.”

But the landing is a big success for the European Space Agency, which launched Rosetta over ten years ago on 2 March 2004.

“A small jump for the robot. A giant jump for mankind”, said Roberto Battiston, president of the Italian Space Agency.

In a statement on Thursday (13 November) European commissioner Maros Sefcovic congratulated the European Space Agency. He called the landing a “great success, proving [the] high quality of European Space science & exploratory programmes”.

EU council president Herman Van Rompuy tweeted: “Not even the sky's the limit for European cooperation!”

Although the comet is currently about 500 kilometres from earth, the Rosetta spacecraft had to travel 6 billion kilometers to get there. It used the gravitational pull of earth and Mars to accelerate and finally arrive at the comet in August 2014.

The comet was discovered in 1969 by Ukrainian astronomer Klim Churyumov, who spotted it on a photographic plate taken by Svetlana Gerasimenko.

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