Today, humans successfully landed a probe on the surface of a comet 300 million miles from Earth, a scientific journey more than 10 years in the making.
The first images from the comet’s surface have already been sent back to Earth, but what we didn’t get to see is how the descent to its surface actually went down. Enter this visualization from the European Space Agency.
The Rosetta spacecraft’s mission began in 2004, and earlier this year it aligned with the Lower Manhattan-sized comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, putting it within 100 kilometers of this rapidly orbiting hunk of space ice. Scientists have spent the last few months analyzing the comet from a distance, but today they were finally ready to drop probe Philae to the surface, something that has never before been attempted. Philae descended for seven hours, and was equipped with with special ice screws and harpoons to grab onto the comet’s slippery, low-gravity surface. Now that it has landed, Philae will spend the next several months using its cameras and tools to collect data about the ancient rock, which formed around the same time as our Solar System, 4.5 billion years ago. The insights gleaned from Philae could revolutionize our understanding of how our solar system began.
The ESA’s simulation shows Rosetta ejecting Philae over the comet. Philae’s legs extend as it closes in on the comet’s surface, and digs in its ice harpoons when it lands. It’s pretty incredible to realize that this is actually what just went down, 300 million miles away.