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Tomorrow, a Man-made Spacecraft Will Land On a Comet for the First Time, Ever

The action starts bright and early

smithsonian.com

UPDATE:

More than 10 years ago, the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft started a trip of more than 4 billion miles to comet 67P/Curyumov-Gerasimenko. Tomorrow, the spacecraft's journey will culminate in a daring maneuver that will take place in, comparatively, little more than the blink of an eye.

Rosetta carries a secondary probe known as the Philae lander, and the ultimate success of this mission will come down to Philae's 7 hour long, 12 mile trip to the surface of the comet. The goal tomorrow, says Nature in the video above, is to shoot the washing machine-sized lander at comet 67P so that it lands safely on the surface. 

The show is set to kick off at 3:35 a.m ET, says the New York Times—that's when Philae will separate from Rosetta and begin its slow descent down to the comet's surface. According to the ESA, confirmation of touchdown should come around 11 a.m.

There are some risks here: as Nature says in the video, if the lander sets down on a boulder, the whole craft could tip over, or, as the Times reports, if it lands in a shadowy spot, its solar panels may not be able to gather enough energy. But "the action itself,” says Motherboard, “isn’t as dramatic as you might think.”

Rosetta is currently gliding alongside the comet at a walking pace, and Philae will get a gentle nudge to descend at a similar rate of around one metre per second, carried to the comet surface by the weak gravitational pull. Taylor said Philae project manager Stephan Ulamec compared the impact to “a bit like walking into a wall: It doesn’t particularly hurt or damage you, but you know you’ve done it.”

The ESA has been drumming up attention for tomorrow's events. The agency's publicity roll out even included a short science fiction film making the case for the mission's importance. The Philae lander and Rosetta probes have their own Twitter account, and starting this afternoon, the agency is putting on a live broadcast chronicling the landing attempt. Tomorrow morning, we can watch from Earth as a spacecraft visits a comet for the first time, ever.

About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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