LIVE: Watch the Rosetta Spacecraft Land on Comet 67P - scheduled "touchdown" around 11 a.m. Wednesday EST
LIVE: Watch a Spacecraft Land on a Comet
BY EVAN DASHEVSKY NOVEMBER 11, 2014 02:15PM EST
Watch as history is made when the Rosetta spacecraft's Philae lander makes a soft landing on Comet 67P.
On March 2, 2004, an ESA space probe named Rosetta embarked on a decade-long, multi-billion-mile journey to rendezvous with Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. The very fact that Rosetta was able to successfully maneuver an interstellar meet and greet with a zooming snowball 251 million miles from Earth and enter an orbit a mere 19 miles above the comet's surface (less than the length of Long Island) is impressive in and of itself.
But now Rosetta will attempt to boldly go where no machine has gone before and land a probe directly on the comet's surface. And you can watch it happen live via an ESA live stream (embedded above).
Just after 4 a.m. EST on Wednesday morning, Rosetta will deploy its 200-pound Philae lander towards 67P. The lander will descend towards the comet at a speed of 3 feet per second before a scheduled "touchdown" around 11 a.m. EST (or, at least that is when Earth will receive confirmation, since there is an approximately half-hour lag in communications at this distance).
Once landed, Philae will fire two harpoons into the comet's surface in order to anchor itself, as it will be without the aid of gravity to keep it in place. For the next part of its mission, the lander will drill down 8 inches into the comet's surface to take samples, and use its on-board laboratory to determine those samples' chemical properties and physical makeup.
The lander's minimum mission is scheduled to last a week, however it's possible Philae will continue operating for several more months afterwards. If all goes according to plan, not only will scientists receive the first direct measurements from inside a comet, but we will all be able to enjoy the first images taken from a comet's surface.
Meanwhile, Rosetta will maintain its orbit above 67P, where it will act as a relay station for communications between Philae and the Earth. Even after Philae goes dark, Rosetta is scheduled to remain in orbit around the comet through the end of 2015 and will observe as the comet changes (i.e. melts) during its approach towards the sun.
If the concept of a major space agency engineering an encounter with a comet sounds familiar, that's because it's not entirely unprecedented. Back in 2005, NASA successfully sent a vessel to rendezvous with Comet Tempel 1, which subsequently launched an "impactor" to crash into the comet. Where NASA's thoroughly unironically named Deep Impact mission used brute force to investigate comet composition, Rosetta and Philae will undertake a far more nuanced (and ultimately, telling) approach via a soft impact and direct scientific measurements.
While space missions can sometimes feel blah and routine, the Rosetta mission is fairly mind-blowing once you step back and take a moment to think about it: Our species built a machine and accurately navigated it on a solar-system wide journey to land on a comet that is less than 3 miles wide. Just reflect on that. With all the horrible things happening in the world right now, we should all take a moment to acknowledge when our species is able to accomplish a truly remarkable thing. Go, science!