On November 12, 2014, the European Space Agency (ESA) will deploy the Phillae lander from the Rosetta probe to land on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. This is a historic moment in space travel, because this represents the first time humans will have direct access to a comet’s material to study, and learn about the origins of our solar system, provided that everyone goes as planned.
For those who don’t know, Rosetta is a probe that was launched by the ESA on 2004. To get to its destination, it had to do many planetary gravity assist maneuvers, or swing-by’s, including a risky Mars swing-by nicknamed the “Billion Euro Gamble.” Along that time, it was mistaken to be an asteroid and observed two asteroids called 2867 Šteins, and 21 Lutetia. It was then put into hibernation for the rest of its journey to the comet.
From January 20 until August 6, after waking up from hibernation, Rosetta began a series of orbital corrections to bring itself into orbit around the comet. On August 6, Jean-Jacque Dordain, ESA’s Director General said, “After ten years, five months and four days travelling towards our destination, looping around the Sun five times and clocking up 6.4 billion kilometres, we are delighted to announce finally ‘we are here’[.]”
Rosetta started it’s deceleration maneuvers by moving itself in two triangular paths, each closer, to the comet surface, than the previous one. After descending to 30 km, on September 10, it entered into an orbit around the comet. After reaching orbit, it began mapping the comet’s surface to find possible landing sites for Phillae. It found many landing sites, but the ESA eventually chose landing site J, now known as Aghika, to land Phillae on.
Today, at 9:03 GMT (4:03 am EST) Phillae will separate from Rosetta and seven hours later at 16:02 pm GMT (11:02 am EST), it will land.
To see the mission so far, and what the future of the mission is, you can watch this video.
In the short film, Ambition, the master tells his apprentice a story about the Rosetta Mission: “So many things could have gone wrong. A failure at launch, an error in the calculations, collisions, so many unknowns.” Thankfully, nothing went wrong, and today, Rosetta is at the comet. Hopefully, it will succeed in its next milestone, and Phillae will give us access to the secrets of the early solar system. Godspeed!
UPDATE: It’s confirmed that the Phillae lander successfully landed on 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.