No big deal, we just landed a robot on a comet

Comet 67P as seen by the Philae lander on its approach yesterday. [Credit:  ESA/Rosetta/Philae/ROLIS]
Comet 67P as seen by the Philae lander on its approach yesterday. [Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/ROLIS]
Yesterday, a robotic probe named Philae landed on the surface of a comet. That’s the first time humanity has ever attempted a comet landing, and for good reason it was an exciting occasion. Things didn’t quite go right: the probe bounced twice and seems to be resting on its side, though it is still in contact with its parent orbiter Rosetta. As I said on social media yesterday, I’m really not sure how to properly emphasize how amazing it is to land an appliance-sized space probe on a 5-kilometer comet from 28 light-minutes away. Even with the problems they’re experiencing, that is an astounding accomplishment, not least because Comet 67P has nearly negligible gravity. None of the usual maneuvers for landing would work.

In any case, we’ll know more over the next day or two about how Philae fared, and whether it can do very much science after its rough landing. It’s still an accomplishment worth celebrating, so here’s my take on the whole thing for The Daily Beast:

Up to today, humanity has landed robotic spacecraft on six other worlds: the Moon, Mars, Venus, Saturn’s moon Titan, and the asteroids Eros and Itokawa. Now we’ve added a seventh, as the Philae lander touched down on Comet 67P/Churyumov—Gerasimenko, the first time we’ve ever landed a spacecraft on a comet.

Philae (pronounced “fee-LAY”) is part of the larger European Space Agency (ESA) Rosetta comet mission, which was launched 10 years ago and arrived at Comet 67P in August. In other words, today’s landing is the culmination of more than a decade of research, planning, and—most stressful for those involved—waiting. [Read more…]

As a final note, though I don’t want to talk about That Shirt anymore, Alice Bell wrote a really excellent analysis of the larger reasons Matt Taylor’s shirt and comments send exactly the wrong message about what science is about — and why it’s not just a shirt.

3 responses to “No big deal, we just landed a robot on a comet”

  1. I’m still fascinated by how were they manage to land a moving object into another moving target !!

  2. Someone described it as throwing a hammer from London to New Dehli and still hitting the nail… remarkable!

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