PARIS (AFP) – European scientists are gearing for the culmination of two decades’ work and a 1.3-billion-euro ($1.6-billion) bet with the first-ever landing on a comet on Wednesday.
In an operation fraught with peril, an unmanned science lab called Philae will detach from the European Space Agency (ESA) scout Rosetta and descend to a comet 510 million kilometres (318 million miles) from Earth.
If all goes well, the 100-kilo (220-pound) probe will harpoon itself to the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.
It will then carry out experiments that, astrophysicists hope, could be a landmark in understanding the Solar System and the origins of life on Earth.
“Rosetta spacecraft in excellent shape,” ESA tweeted on Tuesday. “Target locked!”
In 1993, when the Rosetta mission was approved, the Internet did not exist, Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin were in government and the hit movie of the year was “Jurassic Park”.
Riding piggyback on Rosetta on a 10-year trek across the Solar System, Philae has travelled more than six billion kilometres to make its historic rendezvous – spending 957 days of its journey in hibernation.
Mission controllers at Darmstadt, Germany, face a series of four “go/no-go” assessments before giving the final command to let the little explorer detach from her mothership.
Darmstadt should receive confirmation of the separation at 0903 GMT on Wednesday.
For veterans of this marathon mission, it will be like the severing of an umbilical cord.
“It’s going to be a rather magical moment,” said Sylvain Lodiot, ESA flight manager.
Over the following seven hours, the probe will ever-so-gently descend over 20 kilometres to the surface of the four-kilometre-long comet.