Cosmic First: Spacecraft Orbits Comet—With Plans to Land


Space scientists have scrutinized comets with Earthly telescopes. They’ve watched from afar as one comet self-destructed and slammed into Jupiter, and as another committed hara kiri by venturing too close to the Sun. They’ve even sent space probes to whiz by comets at high speed, trying to unravel their still mysterious nature. Until now, however, nobody has attempted the daredevil stunt of inserting a space probe into orbit around a comet and following with the even riskier maneuver of sending a lander down to scratch and sniff at its ancient, murky surface.

But that’s exactly what the scientists and engineers behind the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission have just accomplished—or the first part, anyway. On August 6 at about 7:00 A.M. ET, after more than ten years in pursuit, Rosetta caught up with and began circling a bulbous comet known as 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimernko (mercifully called 67P for…

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