The human race is set to make space history Wednesday as the European Space Agency nears the final hours of a ten-year mission to land the first space probe on a comet.
The ESA launched the Rosetta spacecraft on a mission to catch up with the 67P/Churyumox-Gerasimenko comet ten years ago, slingshotting around Earth and Mars to catch up with the comet four billion miles later. By Wednesday morning, the spacecraft will have covered the last 12 miles or so, performing its final maneuvers before deploying Philae — the landing probe — onto the surface of the comet.
After getting the final OK from ESA mission control, the 220-pound Philae (which weighs less than an ounce in space) will begin its seven-hour decent to the comet just after 4 a.m. EST, firing two harpoons into the surface and one thruster at the top of the probe, descending to the surface at 3.5 km-per-hour.
Wednesday’s final maneuvers will be some of the most difficult ever performed in space, and will require an extremely high degree of correct calculation and precision to keep the $1.6-million mission’s final act from smashing into the surface, hitting nearby cliffs, or bouncing back into space.
If all goes well, Philae should touch down around 11 a.m. EST.
Rosetta has already captured an unprecedented amount of data on comets after orbiting and photographing 67P as well as analyzing its tail, and scientists believe Philae — which is equipped with 10 instruments — could reveal a wealth of information about the origins of the universe (comets are billions-year-old collections of ice, dust and gases left over from the creation of planets and stars).
NASA will begin live-streaming the event Wednesday at 9 a.m. EST and will continue to broadcast ESA’s landing until 11:30 a.m. EST.