Rosetta Mission: Scientists Gear up for Dramatic Bid to Land Probe on Comet

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from The Wall Street Journal,

If Successful, European Space Agency Probe Would Be First Craft to Survive Landing on a Comet.

The navigation camera on Rosetta shows the boulder-strewn neck region of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on Oct. 28. Associated Press

In what promises to be a nail-biting event worthy of a Hollywood script, rocket scientists Wednesday will attempt the challenging task of trying to land a probe on the surface of a comet.

After a decadelong trek through the solar system, the European Space Agency’s spacecraft Rosetta made a historic rendezvous with a comet known as 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in August. The craft is now in orbit just 6 miles above the comet’s surface. If all goes well, a small probe called Philae will descend from the mother ship and become the first craft to ever survive a landing on a comet.

Made of ancient ice, dust and other materials, comets are objects of scientific curiosity because they have survived virtually intact from the earliest days of the solar system, more than 4.6 billion years ago. Because comets carry water and organic molecules, scientists also hope that the Rosetta mission will provide insights into whether comets could have brought water to Earth and possibly kick-started life here.

“We already have a wealth of data about the comet, but the lander will tell us more about its surface material, such as the composition, strength and hardness,” said Gerhard Schwehm, a former mission manager for Rosetta and currently a consultant to the mission. “We can’t learn that from 10 kilometers away.”

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