The European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission is set to land a probe on the surface of a comet it has been chasing for more than a decade.
On August 6, the Rosetta spacecraft made history by becoming the first spacecraft to rendezvous with and orbit a comet. On Wednesday, the ESA looks to make history again by becoming the first to achieve a soft-landing of a probe on the surface of a comet.
The lander, called Philae, is set to be released from the Rosetta spacecraft at 4:03 a.m. EST on Wednesday when it is approximately 14 miles from the center of the comet. It is expected to land on the comet seven hours later using a harpoon and drills in all three of its landing legs to secure itself to the surface.
“I know it sounds like something out of Moby Dick, but when you think about the gravity field of a comet, it makes a lot of sense to harpoon one,” Art Chmielewski, project manager for U.S. participation in Rosetta said in a statement. “Comet 67P has approximately 100,000 times less gravity than Earth does. So, if you don’t want to float away, you have to go to extraordinary measures to attach yourself to its dusty surface.”
Previous missions have come into contact with comets, often passing through their tails, or by releasing a cometary impactor, as NASA’s Deep Impact mission did, in order to study the internal composition of a comet. However, ESA’s mission aims to achieve the first controlled soft-landing of a space probe on a comet. [Read more: How Budget Cuts Canceled NASA’s Own Comet Landing Mission]
The ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft embarked on its ambitious mission to study comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko on March 2, 2004. It is thought that comets, icy bodies left over from the formation of our solar system, may have delivered water to Earth, and possibly the ingredients for life. The Rosetta spacecraft and its Philae lander aim to improve our understanding of these mysterious celestial bodies.
The ESA, NASA and the Slooh Community Observatory will be providing live webcasts of this historic event. ESA is providing extensive coverage with a live feed of mission control before, during and after landing. NASA’s webcast will begin at 9 a.m. EST on Nov. 12. The Slooh Commmunity Observatory will also be doing a live stream starting at 2 p.m EST on Nov. 12. According to Slooh, they will be providing a “real-time view of the comet after Philae attempts its landing, informing the public of the results as they reach Earth!”
Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream