Spacecraft lands on comet 4 billion miles away
Hundreds of millions of miles from Earth, a spacecraft made history Wednesday. It landed on the icy, dusty surface of a speeding comet. It was an audacious cosmic first. The mission is designed to answer big questions about the origin of the universe.
Paolo Ferri is head of mission operations for the European Space Agency. He said the landing on the comet named 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko appeared to have been almost perfect.
"Everyone cried," he said.
The European Space Agency celebrated the cosmic achievement. The agency had sweated through a tense seven-hour countdown. It began when the Philae lander dropped from the agency's Rosetta space probe. Both it and the comet were hurtling through space at 41,000 mph.
ESA controllers clapped and embraced at mission control in Darmstadt, Germany. That came after the Rosetta space probe had successfully released the 220-pound Philae lander.
During the descent, scientists were powerless to do anything but watch. That's because the vast distance to Earth, 311 million miles, made it impossible to send instructions in real time.
Finally, the agency received a signal from Philae. It had touched down on the comet's icy surface.
Further checks are needed. The agency must determine the state of the lander. But the fact that it is resting on the surface of the comet is already a huge success. It is the highlight of a decade-long mission to study comets.
Scientists want to learn more about the origins of these celestial bodies. They have likened the trillion or so comets in our solar system to time capsules. That's because comets are virtually unchanged since the earliest moments of the universe.
Rosetta and Philae now plan to accompany the comet as it races past the sun.
The landing capped a 4 billion-mile journey. Rosetta was launched in 2004.
The lander should remain stuck to the comet forever, even after its battery and solar powered systems have shut down.
Click to see larger view of informational graphic