The Story of that Historic Comet Landing.


This week has seen possibly the most exciting development in space science since the first manned landing on the moon when a decade long trip across 300 million miles of space ended with the successful deployment of a experiments probe onto a moving comet.

The mere fact of being able to successfully get a tiny lander to touch down on such a body is incredible but the device also transmitted hours worth of invaluable research data to waiting astronomers. The Rosetta space probe had carried the probe Philae toward comet called 67P in a mission first conceived over 20 years ago.

The spacecraft has in fact travelled a distance of 4billion miles because it had to slingshot around Mars once and Earth three times to get to be pointing in exactly, the right direction. En route the craft spent 30 months in so-called hibernation  but two planets, two comets and two asteroids were studied along the way as well..

The Rosetta craft was not that big – just the size of a large van and the probe Philae no bigger than a washing machine so just getting these tiny craft to their goal was a tremendous achievement in itself. 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko was found by a pair of Soviet scientists in 1969 and is some 2.5 miles wide.

Once the probe was successfully deployed – and despite problems with the anchoring pins not firing as they should have –  the onboard robotic laboratory conducted many experiments on the cometary rock and ice near to it. This included drilling into the surface to obtain samples which were analysed. All of the data collected was successfully transmitted back to mission control in Germany before the batteries on the probe drained.

Now in so-called sleep mode the probe could well get re-energised as the comet gets closer to the sun and the batteries charge up again so there is the possibility that the mission scientists will be able to re-establish contact and perhaps conduct further experiments later in the year.

This ground-breaking European Space Agency mission cost almost £1bn and NASA was very much a part of it but the cost is minimal when one considers that science might just get some clues to the origins of the universe itself from this incredibly successful space flight.  With comets very often seen as being remnants from the earliest days of the cosmos the study of their composition significantly increases human understanding of cosmic origins.

With these bodies known to include organic molecules and meteorites the amino acids, which together are the building blocks of life itself, detailed analysis of them is vitally important. Could we in fact have been delivered to earth on the back of a comet some billions of years of evolutionary time ago?

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