Heroes

They Sent A Camera Millions Of Miles Into Space. It Just Took These 7 Photos.

See mankind's first images from the surface of a comet.

They Sent A Camera Millions Of Miles Into Space. It Just Took These 7 Photos.

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.

Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
True

Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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When "bobcat" trended on Twitter this week, no one anticipated the unreal series of events they were about to witness. The bizarre bobcat encounter was captured on a security cam video and...well...you just have to see it. (Read the following description if you want to be prepared, or skip down to the video if you want to be surprised. I promise, it's a wild ride either way.)

In a North Carolina neighborhood that looks like a present-day Pleasantville, a man carries a cup of coffee and a plate of brownies out to his car. "Good mornin!" he calls cheerfully to a neighbor jogging by. As he sets his coffee cup on the hood of the car, he says, "I need to wash my car." Well, shucks. His wife enters the camera frame on the other side of the car.

So far, it's just about the most classic modern Americana scene imaginable. And then...

A horrifying "rrrrawwwww!" Blood-curdling screaming. Running. Panic. The man abandons the brownies, races to his wife's side of the car, then emerges with an animal in his hands. He holds the creature up like Rafiki holding up Simba, then yells in its face, "Oh my god! It's a bobcat! Oh my god!"

Then he hucks the bobcat across the yard with all his might.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
True

Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

Keep Reading Show less