Belfast Telegraph

Touchdown! Belfast scientists reach final frontier in historic Rosetta spacecraft comet mission

The Rosetta spacecraft has finally arrived at its destination in its historic bid to reach an icy comet more than 300 million miles from Earth.

Scientists at Queen's University Belfast who have spent years preparing for the arrival of the craft at comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko were on tenterhooks as they waited for the touchdown signal to reach Earth this afternoon.

The European Space Agency tweeted: History is made RT Philae2014: Touchdown! My new address: 67P! CometLanding

The agency says it has received a signal from the 100-kilo (220 lbs) Philae lander after it touched down on the icy surface of the comet named 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

Flight director Andrea Accomazzo said from the DLR German Aerospace Centre in Darmstadt Germany: "We definitely confirm that the lander is on the surface."

Further checks are needed to ascertain the state of the lander.

The landing on the speeding comet marks the highlight of the decade-long Rosetta mission to study comets and learn more about the origins of these celestial bodies.

Scientists hope it will eventually provide answers to some of the biggest questions about the origin of the universe.

The landing caps a 6.4 billion-kilometre (four billion-mile) journey to study the four-km-wide (2.5-mile-wide) comet.

Philae was supposed to drift down to the comet and latch on using harpoons and ice screws. ESA announced hours before the release that a third component - an active descent system that uses thrust to prevent the craft from bouncing off the surface of the low-gravity comet - could not be activated.

Professor Alan Fitzsimmons from the Astrophysics Research Centre at QUB and his colleagues have been studying the comet from afar for more than a decade and today they hope to get a close-up look at the cosmic body.

"I'm excited and anxious for all the hundreds of scientists, technicians and engineers that have been working on this mission for over a decade," he said.

"What we've been doing over the past few years is observing the comet from Earth, measuring the properties of the comet before the spacecraft gets there, how big it is, how fast it's rotating and so on. Rosetta is now very, very close to the comet, at times less than 10km, and we have a very detailed view but we can't see what happens to material beyond that distance."

The €1.3 billion (£1bn) Rosetta spacecraft was launched in 2004, and has spent a decade manoeuvring to rendezvous with the comet. Performing three fly-bys of the Earth, one of Mars and also passing close to two asteroids, it finally reached comet 67P on August 6 this year. Now both are racing through space together at over 60,000km/h.

Professor Fitzsimmons has just returned from Chile, where he used the world's most powerful telescopes to perform a final reconnaissance of the comet. Some of his colleagues include former Queen's students now working on the mission.

"The Rosetta mission realises the ambition of mankind to explore our origins, and discover what is out there.

"It demonstrates that the European Space Agency plays a major role in the scientific exploration of our Solar System, and Queen's is part of that effort."

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