With a gentle kick from its onboard thrusters, a European spacecraft will arrive at a speeding comet this morning and prepare for a spectacular first in space history.
The comet is so far from Earth that mission controllers at the
"It's the first time we have ever done this," said
But catching up with the comet is merely the end of the beginning of the mission. In the coming weeks,
The gravitational pull of the Mont Blanc-sized comet is so weak that the lander, Philae, must attach itself with an explosive harpoon.
With Philae latched on and
"The time pressure at the moment is phenomenal. It's a race against the clock to learn about the comet and select a landing site. We have to land before the comet becomes too active," said Taylor. "We'll get an inference of what's possible in September, but we won't want to land near the neck of these two parts of the comet. We need the best communications with the orbiter and also to maximise the sunlight the lander receives to give it the best chance to survive as long as possible."
Once in orbit, instruments on board the spacecraft will start collecting and analysing dust and gas coming off the comet. If Philae lands safely in November, it will relay measurements from its own suite of instruments back to the mother ship. While the electronics on Philae will probably die as the comet swings around the sun, the little lander may cling on for several laps around the sun before it loses its grip and falls off.
Comets are formed from debris left over from the early solar system around 4.6bn years ago. By studying the composition of Churyumov-Gerasimenko, scientists hope to learn more about how Earth and the other planets in the solar system came to be.
The comet swings past the sun at a distance of 185m kilometres before heading out to 800m kilometres in the deeper reaches of the solar system.
"The reason we look at comets is that they were there right at the beginning. Leaning about them gives us an idea of where Earth came from and where the whole solar system came from, what that primordial material at the beginning of the solar system was made up of," said Taylor.
One of the main instruments on the lander was built by researchers at the
Measurements from Ptolemy might shed light on whether Earth originally formed as a dry planet that was seeded with water and organic molecules carried by comets that slammed into the planet.
"At the end of the day we just want a safe landing. We've been waiting a long time for this."
"The nucleus shape came as a surprise and, of course, it has implications for the landing site selection," Bohnhardt said. "Apart from the shape itself, also the gravity field, the nucleus rotation, the activity and illumination of the surface play important roles and, on top of all, scientific criteria related with physical properties of the nucleus and its surface layers."
Date this year on which the
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