Space history could be written later as scientists attempt to land a spacecraft on a speeding comet for the first time.It is the final act in the 12-year Rosetta mission designed to analyse the composition and density of a comet in order to better understand the origins of our solar system.
The European Space Agency hopes to align an orbiter craft 13 miles from the surface of the 2.5-mile-long object and then release a landing craft called Philae, as the comet travels at about 30,000mph.
The lander, roughly the size of a dishwasher, will take seven hours to descend onto the comet’s surface, analysing dust and gas particles en route.
When Philae lands on the duck-shaped comet 315 million miles away from Earth it will use 10 sets of instruments to investigate the environment, including a probe to pierce the crust.
It will also send back pictures: including a ‘farewell’ shot after its separation from the orbiter and detailed images of the comet itself.
The Rosetta mission blasted off from French Guiana in March 2004 and has travelled more than four billion miles to reach its target.
Scientists used gravity to act as a catapult, plotting coordinates which took the orbiter around the Earth three times and Mars once.
They even placed the spacecraft into deep space hibernation to conserve energy – it woke up after 31 months when it passed close to the Sun and was charged by solar rays.
Chief scientist Matt Taylor said the analysis of the data from the surface, together with earth-based observations, could provide our most detailed ever snapshot of a comet.
It is believed that comets which formed over four billion years ago could hold the key to how Earth was ‘seeded’ with water and organic matter, therefore providing the building blocks for life.
Mr Taylor told Sky News: “This particular class of comet, Jupiter class comets, showed a similar flavour of water to what we see on Earth so possibly comets could have delivered the Earth’s oceans, so water – and ultimately us, because we are made of water.”
The Rosetta mission is costing £1bn at a time when budgets for space exploration have been squeezed.
But those running the comet chaser say the mission has advanced technology on earth, including the design and construction of most efficient solar panels and they argue it generates more enthusiasm among younger generations.
Rosetta mission leader Paolo Ferri said: “It is a nice byproduct of space. The enthusiasm and fascination that you can bring to young people to go into science.
“To go into technology and to grow a new generation of people that can contribute to the progress of our Europe.”