The European Space Agency is in the midst of attempting a first of its kind space mission: to land a probe on a comet. You can follow the lander’s progress via the ESA live blog here. And on Twitter, via the #CometLanding hashtag.
The mission started back in 2004, when Facebook was a mere twinkle in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye, taking a decade for the Rosetta space probe to reach Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which it finally did on August 6 this year.
Current mission status: waiting for confirmation of the separation of Rosetta’s Philae lander, which — all being well — will touch down on the surface of the comet after descending over a period of around seven hours. Update: Philae’s separation has now been confirmed.
One current complication for a successful landing is that a thruster on Philae has been found to be faulty so the lander will have to rely on two harpoon anchors to stay lodged on the comet. Nail-biting stuff!
The landing site, known as Site J, is located on the smaller of the comet’s two ‘lobes’, and was chosen six weeks ago, after Rosetta had time to survey its target up close.
Confirmation of whether Philae touched down as planned is expected to arrive at Earth at around 16:00 GMT/08:00 PT.
Why land on a comet? The mission aims to conduct the most detailed study of a comet ever, including searching for organic compounds — aka the building blocks for life — in order to test theories that comets were responsible for delivering water to Earth and perhaps even kick-starting life on our planet.