It has been more than a decade in the making. The European Space Agency’s spacecraft Rosetta met up with the comet known as 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko back in August.
Today, that spacecraft is just 6 miles from the comet’s surface as it orbits the comet. And on Wednesday, will attempt one of the most challenging tasks ever performed by a space agency. Successfully landing a probe on the surface of a comet.
Why the Massive Undertaking?
Scientists have long been interested in comets. They have survived the early days of the solar system, and could provide tons of clues and information about our solar system’s early days. Did comets bring water to Earth, and with it life? That’s just one question Rosetta mission planners hope to gain insights on when the Philae lander lands on the comet.
On Wednesday morning, the Rosetta spacecraft will initiate a thruster burn away from the comet. Once it’s about 14 miles away from the comet, it will release the lander. From there, it will be a harrowing seven-hour descent to the comet’s surface. Should everything go smoothly, the Philae lander will fire two harpoon anchors and touch down softly.
Here’s an infographic showing what Philae will do as it descends and lands on the comet.
Even if Philae’s landing is unsuccessful, the Rosetta spacecraft will continue conducting observations of the comet until at least December 2015.