European spacecraft lands on comet

Frank Jordans and Christoph Noelting
Associated Press

 A handout photo released on November 12, 2014 by the European Space Agency shows Rosettas OSIRIS narrow-angle camera captured this parting shot of the Philae lander after separation.

Darmstadt, Germany — Landing with a bounce after traveling 4 billion miles, a European spacecraft made history Wednesday by successfully reaching the icy, dusty surface of a speeding comet — a cosmic first designed to answer big questions about the universe.

The landing by the washing machine-sized crafter after a decade-long journey required immense precision, as even the slightest error could have resulted in stellar calamity.

Indications were that the spacecraft touched down almost perfectly, save for an unplanned bounce, said Stephan Ulamec, head of the lander operation.

"Today we didn't just land once. We maybe even landed twice," he said with a chuckle.

Ulamec said thrusters that were meant to push the lander, called Philae, onto the surface, and harpoons that would have anchored it to the comet failed to deploy properly. Initial data from the spacecraft indicated that it lifted off again, turned and then came to rest.

Scientists were still trying to fully understand what happened and whether those failures would affect the lander's ability to remain on the comet, called 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. But so far, most of the instruments were working fine and sending back data as hoped, Ulamec said.

"Tomorrow morning we should know a lot more," he said.

The landing team at mission control in Darmstadt had to sweat through a tense seven-hour wait that began when Philae dropped from the agency's Rosetta space probe as both it and the comet hurtled through space at 41,000 mph.

During the lander's descent, scientists were powerless to do anything but watch, because its vast distance from Earth — more than 300 million miles — made it impossible to send instructions in real time.

Finally, at 11:03 a.m., the agency received a signal that the lander had touched down.

While it may take a while to determine the state of the 220-pound lander, the fact that it was resting on the comet was already a success.

European Space Agency controllers embraced as they learned their probe landed on a speeding comet.