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On Wednesday, November 12th, an unmanned spacecraft made history by landing perfectly on its target - a speeding comet that lies at a distance of 310 million miles from earth. According to the European Space Agency (ESA), the brainchild behind this audacious project, the Rosetta space probe that housed the 220-pound washing machine-sized Philae lander, released its passenger to its destination perfectly - not an easy feat given that the Comet 67P was hurtling through Space at a speed of 41,000 mph.
The picture perfect landing on the Space rock that measures a mere 4 kilometers or 2.5 miles in diameter, ended a 4 billion-mile journey that began ten years ago. Launched in 2004, Rosetta had to revolve around Earth three times and Mars once, before it could gain enough speed and momentum to chase down the comet. The robotic space probe has been flying alongside 67P since August 2014, waiting for the opportune moment to off-load its precious cargo.
The only glitch in this otherwise successful mission was that Philae's anchoring harpoons that had been designed to affix the spacecraft to a designated area on the comet's surface, failed to activate. Since 67P has very weak gravity, Philae bounced up and down a few times, before settling down on the comet. As a result, its final resting place ended up being in the shadow of a cliff.
This was a major setback given that Philae's battery was only equipped with enough power to last 64 hours - ample time for its solar panel to get exposure to the sun and help it recharge. In order to get it out of the shadow, ESA scientists operating from 310-miles away, moved the lander by about 4 centimeters and rotated it approximately 35 degrees. However, it was not enough and by early Saturday, the historical lander lost all contact with its human creators.
While scientists are resigned to the fact that Philae is 'dead' for now, its mother ship Rosetta, is well and alive and will continue sending information as it follows the comet's progress for another year. Meanwhile, scientists are hoping that as 67P gets closer to the sun, Philae will get enough exposure to recharge its battery and wake up from its deep slumber.
The good news is that during the approximately 64-hours that Philae was in contact, it was extremely effective. In addition to sending back amazing photographs and reams of data about its new home, the spacecraft also performed a series of scientific tests. The researchers are hoping that this information will give them the answers they are seeking. Of particular interest is the data from a complex experiment that involved drilling a 25-centimeter hole in the comet's surface and extracting a sample, for analysis.
If scientists can examine a piece of the comet's surface which has remained unchanged for 4.5 billion years, they may finally be able to solve the mystery that has confounded scientists for years and, is one of the main reasons behind this $1.6 billion USD mission - were comets responsible for bringing organic matter and water - the building blocks of life - to Earth?
This is not the last space rock chase we will encounter - In 2016, NASA plans to launch a spacecraft that will zip close to an asteroid in a speedy quick three years. However, instead of landing, it will simply extend out its robotic arm, pluck a piece of the rock, and bring it back to Earth for scientists to examine.
Resource: tweentribune.com, cnn.com, news.yahoo.com