Catching a comet: A humbling success |
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Things didn’t go quite as planned but the European Space Agency (ESA) still accomplished an astonishing feat in the search for the origins of our solar system — and life itself — by landing the first probe on a comet.

A 10-year journey culminated Wednesday last when the Rosetta orbiter’s Philae lander reached the surface of Comet 67P, moving at 41,000 mph more than 300 million miles from Earth. Philae’s downward thruster and harpoons intended to anchor it to the low-gravity surface didn’t work, so it bounced twice before settling. And given that it appears to have landed in the shadow of a cliff, its solar panels could be compromised. But ESA said Philae was stable and sending data, including the first photo from a comet’s surface.

Given the failure of more than half of all probes aimed at Mars, a far bigger target than 67P, this unprecedented mission’s success is even more remarkable. And U.S. know-how played a vital role, providing three of Philae’s scientific instruments, plus communications through NASA’s Deep Space Network antennas.

Data from 67P, a time capsule documenting the solar system’s formation, should shed light on whether comets brought water and key organic compounds — life’s building blocks — to Earth billions of years ago.

But this mission tells us much about mankind, too, reminding all of the importance of looking beyond ourselves and our mundane concerns, posing the biggest questions and cooperating to seek answers far beyond our planet.

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