An artist’s impression of the Philae probe setting down on Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko.
If you have an interest in space exploration, you could not have picked a better time in history to be alive than right now. Data and images stream back to Earth daily at an unprecedented rate from robotic spacecraft active at far-flung destinations all over the solar system. To use an old political quote – we’ve never had it so good.
In the past 50 years we’ve exploded out of our “little blue dot” to leave boot prints on the moon, land on Venus, Mars and Saturn’s moon Titan, and to orbit Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, asteroids and comets, giving us incredible visual vistas of all.
What’s missing is a detailed view of dwarf planet Pluto, but we’ll have that when the New Horizons spacecraft gets there next year.
There’s also another missing first about to be achieved next week – we’re going to make a soft landing on the surface of a comet.
Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko had to wait around patiently for billions of years for humans to discover it in 1967. However, it’s been a much shorter wait for an opportunity to get up close and personal with it – we’re landing a probe on the frozen dumbbell-shaped comet next Wednesday, November 12.
The Rosetta spacecraft, carrying the Philae probe, was launched from French Guiana in February 2004 by the European Space Agency. It arrived in August this year and has already given us great views of the comet.
It was named for the Rosetta Stone found in Egypt that was crucial in deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Similarly the “lander” is named for the Nile River island Philae, where an obelisk also assisted in solving the puzzle of these symbols.