Robot Makes Historic Descent On A Comet

klimAkey milestone has been reached in the quest to land a spacecraft on a comet.

Controllers say they have now made radio contact with the descending Philae robot, meaning they should be able to receive pictures from it. Philae was dropped towards Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko by the European Space Agency’s Rosetta satellite at 08:35 GMT.

The mission will shine a light on some mysteries surrounding these icy relics from the formation of our Solar System.

Confirmation of touchdown is expected at Earth sometime around 16:00 GMT.

Success would be a first for space exploration – no mission has previously made a soft landing on a comet.

Part of the difficulty is the very low gravity on the 4km-wide ice mountain.

Philae needs to be wary of simply bouncing back into space.

As a consequence, on contact it will deploy foot screws and harpoons to try to fasten its position.

It will then take a picture of its surroundings – a strange landscape containing deep pits and tall ice spires.

Early yesterday, the third “go/no-go” decision was delayed. The thruster system used to push the robot into the surface of the comet at the moment of touchdown could not be primed.

“We will just have to rely now on the harpoons, the screws in the feet, or the softness of the surface. It doesn’t make it any easier, that’s for sure,” said lander chief Stephan Ulamec, from the German Space Agency.

The comet’s tricky terrain means that Philae could bash into cliffs, topple down a steep slope, or even disappear into a fissure.

Esa’s Rosetta mission manager Fred Jansen said that despite these challenges, he was very hopeful of a positive outcome.

“We’ve analysed the comet, we’ve analysed the terrain, and we’re confident that the risks we have are still in the area of the 75 per cent success ratio that we always felt,” he told reporters here at Esa’s mission control in Darmstadt, Germany.


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