Tomorrow, the European Space Agency (ESA) will attempt to land the tiny Philae probe onto the surface of a comet. If the landing is successful, it will be the first time scientists have landed a probe on a comet, and it will be the completion of a mission that began 10 years ago when the Rosetta spacecraft launched.
There are several factors that make this mission particularly difficult, besides the obvious fact that “space is hard.” First, the comet (Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko) is reportedly about 300 million miles away from Earth. Moreover, the descent will take seven hours to complete, which NASA is terming “7 hours of terror.” The surface of the comet is hard and uneven, and the probe does not have the ability to make last-minute adjustments. If those aren’t enough possible stumbling blocks, remember that a comet is a low-gravity environment.
Yet, even if the landing fails, scientists have learned much about space from this mission already. The spacecraft has taken photos of the comet, and scientists say that only 20 percent of the findings from the mission would be lost in the event of an unsuccessful landing, Space.com reports.
Just as amazing as the fact that this is happening is the fact that we can watch it happen through live broadcasts set up by the ESA, NASA and Slooh, the online astronomy community, though there will be about a 27-minute delay due to distance.
The ESA will stream the Mission Control Room for 24 hours starting at 2 p.m ET today. At 9 p.m. ET tonight, the ESA will determine if the mission is a “go” or a “no go.” If they get the green light, NASA will livestream the event beginning at 9 a.m. ET tomorrow until 11:30 a.m. ET. During this time, we will learn if the probe landed safely. The probe is expected to land at 10:35 a.m. ET.
After the mission, Slooh will air a one-hour broadcast at 2 p.m. ET during which scientists will answer listeners’ questions.
If it lands safely, Philae will continue to collect data from the comet for an estimated 2-1/2 days.