BERLIN/FRANKFURT (Reuters) – The European Space Agency (ESA) landed a probe on a comet on Wednesday, a first in space exploration and the climax of a decade-long mission to get samples from what are the remnants of the birth of Earth’s solar system.
The box-shaped 100-kg lander, named Philae, touched down on schedule at about 1600GMT after a seven-hour descent from spacecraft Rosetta around half a billion kilometres from Earth.
Scientists hope that samples from the surface of 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko will help show how planets and life are created as the rock and ice that make up the comet preserve organic molecules like a time-capsule.
Comets come from the formation of Earth’s 4.6-billion-year-old solar system. Scientists believe they may have brought much of the water in Earth’s oceans.
“We are ready to make science fiction a science fact,” ESA director of human spaceflight and operations, Thomas Reiter, said at the European Space Operations Centre in Germany before the landing.
Rosetta reached the comet, a roughly 3-by-5 km rock discovered in 1969, in August after a journey of 6.4 billion km that took 10 years, five months and four days – a mission that cost close to 1.4 billion euros (US$1.8 billion).
Rosetta is the first spacecraft to orbit a comet rather than just flying past to take pictures.
Wednesday’s launch went ahead despite a problem with the thruster that meant the probe had to rely mainly on its harpoons to stop it bouncing back from the comet’s surface.