Robotic Lander Will Uncover Mysteries Of Life

A 10-year journey has officially come to an end as the European Space Agency (ESA) successfully lands its robotic space lander onto a comet. Since November 1993, as part of its International Rosetta Mission, scientists from the U.S. and Europe have immersed themselves in the project in hopes that it will shed light on the origins of life on earth.

After a seven-hour long wait, scientists at the mission control center based in Germany received the go-ahead to release the 100-kilogram (220-pound) “Philae” lander onto to the 4-kilometer (2.5-mile) wide comet. The moment came shortly after 1600 GMT, as Philae shot harpoons into the comets’ icy surface in order to prevent itself from bouncing off.

This landing marks a historical moment in space history. The Rosetta spaceship left Earth back in 2004 to chase the 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet. It is comprised of two parts: a main orbiter and the Philae robotic lander. For the last few months, this spacecraft has been studying the comet from a distance in order to look for a suitable landing spot. It finally caught up to the speeding “fireball” after traveling a distance of over six billion kilometers.

Philae will now proceed to map the comet and gather important organic samples by drilling roughly 8-11 inches below its surface. Instruments on board will also probe the comet’s interior to measure dust grains and study its atmosphere and gravity. All the data, including high-resolution panoramic pictures, will be documented or fed to Philae’s laboratory for further analysis.

Previous studies by the ESA’s Giotto spacecraft have shown that comets contain complex organics that are rich in carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen. These are the same building blocks that make up the essential ingredients of life – such as amino acids and nucleic acids. It is also likely that comets are responsible for delivering the first water to Earth. Thus, Rosetta’s mission is immensely important for shedding light on the origins of the galaxy.

The £1 billion project will continue to run throughout the remainder of 2015. This marks the first successful attempt at a soft landing.