After Historic Bounce, Lander Reaches Comet’s Surface

Philae probe sends first images from distant comet.

Philae Lander

Philae Lander

Philae Lander

Following an epic journey of more than 4 billion miles spanning 10 years, a tiny lander the size of a washing machine made history by being the first spacecraft to touch down on the surface of a distant comet and start beaming back pictures to researchers on Earth.

The Philae lander actually made a bounced landing – a concept all too familiar to Flying's pilot readers – after being launched yesterday from the Rosetta mother ship into the comet's negligible gravitational pull (Philae's weight on the comet's surface is about that of a penny). It ended up several meters from its intended touchdown point after its anchoring harpoon mechanism failed to fire, but it appears to be in good working condition and, for now anyway, is successfully communicating with mission control in Germany, according to the European Space Agency.

Planning for the Rosetta mission started more than 25 years ago when scientists dreamed of sending a probe to study the surface of Comet 67P, a 4-billion-year-old chunk of rock and ice weighing 11 billion tons and hurtling through space at 40,000 miles an hour. Researchers hope to unlock some of the mysteries of the universe as they try to determine, for instance, whether comets slamming into Earth early on may have seeded the planet with water, and even life.

NASA had a small role in the $1.3 billion Rosetta project, supplying a handful of instruments. But this is clearly Europe’s victory. It’s an achievement the ESA is happy to share with all the world, at least while Philae’s batteries remain charged.

Where this mission ranks in the history of space exploration is hard to say. It will depend largely on what sort of data Philae can send home and for how long. If the little lander succeeds in broadening our understanding of the universe, Philae’s one small step onto the dusty surface of a faraway comet could indeed turn out to be among the most important achievements in the history of humankind.