On 2nd March 2004, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta spacecraft along with its robotic lander called Philae launched from Earth with the stated mission of successfully landing on the surface of Comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko (named after its Soviet discoverer), attaching itself to the comet’s surface, and transmitting data about its composition back to mission control in Darmstadt, Germany.
Rosetta and its payload subsequently traveled for 3,907 days (10.7 years) and more than 3.75 billion miles (6 billion kms) around the inner Solar System before on 12th November 2014 landing on the 2.5 mile (4km) wide lump of ice and dust located more than 300 million miles (483 million kms) from Earth. Recently, astrophysics have been exploring the possibility that life on Earth may have started after the planet was bombarded and seeded by these bodies of cosmic ice and carbon-rich dust, and as the ESA explains:
“[The mission’s scientific goal is to focus on] elemental, isotopic, molecular and mineralogical composition of the cometary material, the characterization of physical properties of the surface and subsurface material, the large-scale structure and the magnetic and plasma environment of the nucleus.”
Philae’s mission was not without incident, though, and after its anchor harpoons failed to deploy, the dishwasher-sized craft bounced twice on Comet 67P’s surface before coming to rest 0.6 miles (1km) away from its initial touchdown. Over the following three days, Philae then managed to send back valuable data that will keep scientists occupied for years, and even succeeded in drilling material out from the comet surface for chemical analysis. Sixty hours later, however, the first spacecraft to land on a comet went into “idle mode” after not receiving enough sunlight to recharge its batteries. Further contact with the craft is now not possible unless its solar panels get enough power to wake it up and re-link with Rosetta, and as Astrophysicist Elizabeth Pearson explains:
“Unfortunately where it actually landed means it gets a lot less sunshine a day – about an hour’s sunshine in every 18 – which means it is not going to be able to charge as well as it hopes.”
Meanwhile, the Rosetta spacecraft will continue to escort Philae and Comet 67P until December 2015, when the comet traveling at 135,000km per hour reaches its closest point to the Sun before starting to head back out towards the outer Solar System.