Humans just landed a robot on a comet, harpoons were involved

An artist's rendering of the Rosetta spacecraft, lander Philae, and comet P67. Photo: ESA/Reuters
An artist's rendering of the Rosetta spacecraft, lander Philae, and comet P67. Photo: ESA/Reuters


Space Robots

Alternate headline: One gentle comet landing for a robot, a historic leap for mankind.

After a decade-long journey through space and a tense descent involving misfiring harpoons, humans successfully landed a manmade craft on a comet for the first time in history, and are primed to learn about the origins of our universe.

The story starts in 2005, when the European Space Agency launched a spacecraft called Rosetta in 2005 carrying a washing-machine-sized lander, Philae, strapped to its belly. They sent it after P67/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, a 2.5-mile-wide chunk of space rock that was hurtling toward the sun.

Almost a decade later, in August this year, Rosetta caught up P67. Last evening, it made contact. After a seven-hour descent, the Philae lander touched down gently on the surface of P67 around 11 a.m. US Eastern time, and made contact with mission control.

Spacecraft Rosetta captured a goodbye shot of Philae lander on its way to the comet surface. Photo via: t: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

“Today we have written a little bit of history in space flight,” said Thomas Reiter, director of human spaceflight operations at ESA, in a live-streamed telecast after touchdown was confirmed.

“How audacious, how exciting, how believable to be able to dare to land on a comet, to take the step we’ve always wanted from a scientific perspective,” said Jim Green, director of planetary science at NASA. “We should relish that moment. It’s the start of something important. The solar system is mankind’s — this is the first step to take it.”

Philae is a little space lab, and due to send back data all the way through December 2015. But first there will be photos, panoramic views of the comet surface. We can only hope there will also be selfies.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at
Follow Nidhi on Twitter - Facebook