European probe Philae separates from orbiter, heads to comet for landing: ESA

An artist's impression of the European probe Philae separating from its mother ship Rosetta and descending to the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The European probe Philae on Nov 12 was on course to make the first-ever landing on a comet
An artist's impression of the European probe Philae separating from its mother ship Rosetta and descending to the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The European probe Philae on Nov 12 was on course to make the first-ever landing on a comet after separating from its mother ship Rosetta, mission control said. -- PHOTO: AFP

DARMSTADT, Germany (AFP) - The European probe Philae on Wednesday was on course to make the first-ever landing on a comet after separating from its mother ship, mission control said.

Philae ejected at around 8.35am GMT, said Mr Andrea Accomazzo, flight operations director at the European Space Agency (ESA). "We see it in telemetry," he said, amid cheers and relieved applause from members of the team.

"The Philae lander has separated from the Rosetta orbiter, and is now on its way to becoming the first spacecraft to touch down on a comet," the agency said.

Touchdown by the 100kg robot lab is expected around seven hours later.

A robot lab bearing 10 instruments, Philae is designed to carry out experiments on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, racing towards the Sun at a distance of more than 500 million kilometres from Earth.

Comets are believed to be pristine clusters of ice and carbon dust, holding secrets on the origins of the Solar System - and possibly of life on Earth - 4.6 billion years ago.

If all goes well, Earth will receive a signal at about 4pm GMT saying Philae has landed.

"Now, it's down to the laws of physics. We're on the way to the surface," said ESA's senior science adviser Mark McCaughrean.

"I don't have fingernails, so I won't be biting them," he quipped.

Philae is meant to settle down at a gentle 3.5kmh, firing two harpoons into a surface that engineers fervently hope will provide enough grip.

Ice screws at the end of its three legs will be driven into the low-gravity comet to stop the probe bouncing back into space. A final check found an apparent malfunction with a small gas thruster on top of Philae which is supposed to fire at the same time, providing a downward push, said Mr Stephan Ulamec with the German aerospace firm DLR.

"We are going to have to depend entirely on the harpoons", which if the surface is right can penetrate to a depth of 2.5m, Mr Ulamec said.

Conceived in the 1980s, the €1.3 billion (S$2.09 billion) Rosetta project was approved in 1993.

The orbiter, carrying Philae, was hoisted into space in 2004, but needed more than a decade to reach its target in August this year - a 6 billion km trek around the inner solar system.

Watch the video of the Rosetta Mission here.