Few journeys have been as difficult, distant, or risky as that of Rosetta. Ten years after the initial launch and 310 million miles from its point of origin, the Philae probe left the mothership and descended toward its destination comet. The probe was initially set to land on a different comet altogether several years back, but it missed its window of opportunity and the mission had to be changed mid-journey. That also meant a shortage of fuel that necessitated a virtual shutdown of Rosetta for two years, but the scores of scientists working on the mission pressed onward and an historic milestone in space exploration was set yesterday. Well, two milestones – Rosetta’s 1.4 billion euro price tag shattered records all its own.
So why bother landing on a comet in the first place? Comets are comprised of ice and rock, materials that can preserve information organic molecules for millions – or billions – of years. Scientists hope that by studying the substances that comprise the comet, they can gain clues regarding the composition of the universe around the time of its formation, and possibly unlock some of the mysteries regarding the origin of life itself. That explains some of the thrills traveling through the scientific community following the successful landing of the Philae probe despite all odds. It also puts the cost of the mission into perspective – especially when you consider that it only cost half as much as the U.S. midterm elections. In that light, it seems like a bargain, really.
The landing didn’t go completely smoothly, however. In fact, scientists are saying that the probe may have actually landed twice – touching down once, bouncing off the surface, and then settling back onto the comet. In a low gravity environment such as the comet, that’s a dangerous stunt for an expensive piece of scientific equipment to pull, especially since the harpoons meant to anchor the probe to the comet failed to launch. Although the probe’s position might be precarious for the moment, the mission’s operators are investigating potential methods to further secure the probe.