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On November 12, 2014, for the first time in history, we landed on a comet. It took a long time – about 10 years – to get there.

The Approach

Just a few days before the landing, we got our first up-close glimpses of the alien rock, called 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, from the European Space Agency's probe, Rosetta. Here's what it looks like from about six miles away:


Look how jagged the cliff is compared to the smooth, dusty surface below. It almost looks like a set from Star Trek in this photo:

Except that it's just a tiny big bigger than any set we've ever built. It's hard to get a sense of how big everything in these pictures is because, well, the comet is floating in empty space and there's nothing to compare it to. It turns out 67P isn't just any comet. It's a massive (and, oddly, duck-shaped) comet. How massive? Here's what it would look like over London:

Yikes! Let's just say it's a good thing it's floating over 300 million miles away.

But a part of us isn't just floating around the comet — it's on it. How'd that happen?

Off We Go

Philae, the lander attached to Rosetta, said goodbye and set off toward the comet to attempt something that had never been done before: land on it. We had no idea whether it would work.

That's Philae leaving Rosetta. The three legs sticking out of it are its landing gear.

Here's a shot from Philae, just under two miles from the surface:

Here's what it looked like just 100 feet from touching down. That boulder in the top-right looks small, but it's actually about 16 feet across, roughly the size of two pickup trucks.

Meanwhile, Back At Home...

Philae drifted closer to the comet, and then ... well, it's funny. I'm telling this story in real-time. But because the comet is 300 million miles away, it actually takes about 30 minutes for signals from it to travel through space and back to Earth. So while this is going on out beyond Mars, the folks back on Earth were just waiting — and rather nervously, judging by this photo from the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany:

Translation: "Live from the control room: They're also riveted to their screens, waiting for news."

Out in space, Philae moved out of sight of Rosetta as it neared the end of the pair's 10-year odyssey.

Touchdown!

Minutes passed. Finally, the signal arrived! Confirmed: Philae had landed on the comet. The celebrations poured in from across this planet, and raucous applause filled ESOC.

The landing wasn't seamless. One of Philae's thrusters failed, which caused it to bounce when it hit the comet. And the harpoons that were supposed to keep it latched tightly to 67P failed to deploy, causing it to shift slightly.

But it did land, and in one piece. Data started to drift in, and then, after a few hours, this arrived: the first postcard from a comet, sent by Philae's CIVA camera back to all of its fans here on Earth.

Later, we got an entire panorama. People of Earth, welcome to 67P, your first comet:

Unfortunately, we may have to wait a while for more photos. It looks like Philae's final resting place is probably on its side, near a crater, where it receives only 1.5 hours of sunlight per day to charge its batteries. That means the ESA will have to prioritize the sensors that the lander uses, including cameras, to make sure we get as much science out of the project as possible.

A Moment To Remember

As you savor these images, it's worth noting that this is not the beginning or the end. This was a mission a decade in the making. And whether or not Philae stays alive and runs experiments for the next few years, as planned, we've already learned an incredible amount about our solar system that will have an immeasurable impact on our future.

The cheers may have started when Philae made its relatively safe landing, but they should continue for years to come.

This article originally appeared on 09.06.17


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Photo by Taylor Wilcox on Unsplash

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