NASA/JPL usually gets all the press, but yesterday the European Space Agency had its moment. That’s because in March 2004 the ESA sent out a probe called Rosetta, which then traveled 6.4 billion kilometers over a period of ten years in order to intercept a tiny little speck of a comet that was zipping along at varying speeds as high as 135,000 kilometers per hour. (Right now it’s going 66,250 kph.) And since no rocket exists that could drive a probe the size of Rosetta all the way to the comet, the scientists who programmed this mission sent Rosetta bouncing around the inner Solar System in order to get gravity-assisted speed boosts off Mars (once) and Earth (three times). This is pretty much the equivalent of hitting a billiard ball off all four sides of the pool table to knock in the 8-ball — if the four sides of the pool table were all simultaneously in motion, along with the 8-ball. And if the whole thing took ten years. And if the pool table was a billion or so kilometers long.
In other words, just getting Rosetta to its destination—Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, but let’s call it Comet 67P for short—was epic. Then last month, Rosetta hovered about 10 kilometers above the comet and took some gorgeous closeups, including this one. Did you know that comets have sand dunes?
If you want to see the rest of this collection, it’s here.
But that still wasn’t why the ESA was in the news. Yesterday, Rosetta finally released its lander, named Philae, to make a direct landing on the comet. This was a first in human history.
Now, keep in mind that Philae doesn’t have any engines. So the idea was to get Rosetta in exactly the right place, going exactly the right speed (the comet is moving at 66,250 kph, remember—that’s 41,166 mph), so that Philae could be released and then simply drift down onto the comet’s surface. Over a period of seven hours. While everyone is ripping along at Ludicrous Speed. So, no problem. Oh, and did I mention that this was the culmination of ten years of work and waiting? And that some people have spent their entire professional lives working toward this moment?
So, here’s one of them. Her name is Monica Grady, she’s the Professor of Planetary and Space Science at Open University and a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE), she’s been on the Rosetta team since the beginning, and in this video she is reacting to the news of Philae’s successful touchdown with the typical reserve we expect from a decorated British scientist.
The “David” she is apologizing to is the BBC’s Science Editor David Shukman, who appears to have quite enjoyed that enthusiastic hug. And who wouldn’t?
You can learn much more about Rosetta, Comet 67P, and little Philae on the ESA’s web site. It’s a good primer with easy-to-understand text, but if you’d like a visual shortcut, don’t miss the two animated videos describing the journey (Are We There Yet) and the preparation for landing (Preparing for #CometLanding). I really can’t see NASA producing these! They are without a doubt the most adorkable science videos I have ever watched. And yet they still manage to get all the relevant information across. I can’t wait to see the next one.
Finally, and possibly best of all, SPLOID has put up size comparison photos of Comet 67P. Some of them are courtesy of the ESA, such as this one comparing the comet to London.
You can also see it compared to Amsterdam, Madrid, Paris and Rome. But my favorite images are the ones by high school physics teacher Christopher Becke, who decided to show what the comet would look like next to various science fiction ships…like Battlestar Galactica.
You can also see it compared to the Death Star and various Federation constructions like Deep Space Nine and a Federation Space Dock (which is freaking huge; I had no idea).
Science is cool.