It was a day when science fiction became science fact. With minute-perfect accuracy, scientists landed a probe on a comet following a ten year journey through the solar system.
The European Space Agency predicted that the first signal would arrive back on Earth at 4.03pm confirming that the Philae lander had touched down after being detached from its mother ship Rosetta.
And at 4.03pm the instruments at control centre in Darmstadt, Germany, sparked into life as the probe made contact and furrowed brows were replaced with beaming smiles and tears.
“We are on the comet!” announced Dr Stephan Ulamec, Philae’s Lander Manager. “We are sitting on the surface and Philae is talking to us.”
However initial jubilation was followed by some anxiety after it emerged that the landing harpoons had not activated, meaning that the probe was simply sitting on the soft surface without being securely attached.
Just hours later Dr Ulamec was forced to admit that the scientists had lost contact with the probe and did not actually know where it was.
“It’s complicated to land on a comet. It’s also complicated to understand what has happened during the landing. What we know is that we touched down and we landed on the comet. We had a very clear signal and we also received data from the lander. That is the very good news.
“The not so good news is that the anchoring harpoons did not fire. So the lander is not anchored to the surface. Did we just land in a soft-sand box and everything is fine? Or is there something else happening. We still do not fully understand what has happened.
“Some of the data indicated that the lander may have lifted off again. It touched down and was rebouncing. So maybe today, we didn’t just land once, we landed twice.”
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