Published on 13 Nov 2014 Sections

Rosetta probe makes historic landing – after a bump or two

Stunning images and mysterious sounds are sent back by the Rosetta probe after its remarkable space-flight feat – but does it have enough power left to do its job properly?

The Philae probe touched down on the 2.5 mile-wide comet yesterday afternoon after a 10-year, four billion-mile journey through space in an achievement hailed as one of the greatest in science.

Those behind the achievement clapped, cheered and hugged each other after receiving confirmation that the probe had landed on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

Take an interactive tour of the Rosetta control room 

Officials from the European Space Agency however, said today the craft relies on sunlight to generate electricity from solar cells that covers its outer casting. But with the probe in shadow, it could seriously jeopardise its operations.

The lander was initially described as “stable” despite concerns after a harpoon which was meant to tether it to the surface of the comet.

“Philae is on the surface and doing a marvellous job, working very well and we can say we have a very happy lander,” head of ESA operations Paolo Ferri reassured.

Professor of Astrophysics Chris Lintott has been tweeting from the European Space Agency control room and has said that signals are being received from the probe, but that the position of the probe was wrong:

Despite the mishap, the probe appears to be operating as intended and collecting data. However, there have been gaps in its radio link with the orbiting Rosetta mothership.

Rosetta project scientist Dr Matt Taylor said: “In the next few hours we hope to be piecing the data we get on the lander to add this all together.”

The lander is equipped with ice screws on the tips of its three legs which may help keep it grounded.

A radio signal confirming the landing was received by scientists at 4.03pm UK time yesterday after taking almost 30 minutes to travel the 316 million miles to Earth.

Rosetta signal received

“When I left the control room, everybody was moved, was excited, most of the people were crying. People are more, yeah, they have difficulties to believe that it happened, so, but we are very busy, the control team is busy in checking the situation, stabilising the situation, so they won’t have much time to think of the historical moment – they have to work,” Mr Ferri told journalists after the landing.

“Signs continue coming, of course the scientific experiments will start a bit later, but the measurements for the instruments which were already active – and they are already active now – are coming,” Mr Ferri added.

“How audacious, how exciting, how unbelievable to be able to dare to land on a comet,” NASA’s director of Planetary Science, Jim Green, said at the European Space Operations Centre in Germany after the successful touchdown.

Eight Rosetta facts

  • Rosetta is named after the Rosetta Stone, which was used to decipher heiroglyphs. Philae is named after an island in the Nile, on which a bilingual obelisk was found, which enabled the heiroglyphs of the Rosetta Stone to be deciphered.
  • The comet is named 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko after Klim Ivanovych Churyumov, who discovered the comet in 1969 in a photograph taken Svetlana Ivanovna Gerasimenko.
  • Rosetta has used the gravity of two planets to alter it course to enable it to land on the comet. It has used three planetary flybys of Earth and one of Mars in order to get into the comet’s loop.
  • The comet is two and a half miles in diameter and travels at up to 80,000 miles per hour.
  • Rosetta was the first spacecraft to fly close to Jupiter’s orbit using only solar cells as its main power source.
  • Rosetta’s original target was comet 46P/Wirtanen, but after the initial launch was postponed a new target, Comet 67P, was chosen.
  • The Philae lander is carrying ten scientific instruments, including a drilling system, cameras and spectrometers (measuring properties of light). The Rosetta spacecraft also has scientific instruments on board including very high-resolution cameras, spectrometers and sensors.
  • Philae’s first scientific measurement will be completed in the first two and a half days it is on the comet. However, it could continue its observations, whilst powered by solar cells, for another three months as the comet gets closer to the sun. It is likely that by March 2015 at the latest it will be too hot for the lander to operate.

British engineers have also made major contributions to the mission’s electrical, software and imaging systems.

Congratulating all those involved, Prime Minister David Cameron said the landing “marks a new chapter in the exploration of our Solar System”.