The Rosetta mission, the combined effort by European Space Agency and NASA to land a spacecraft on a comet, has so far been a resounding success.
The decade-long journey to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko culminated 317 million miles from Earth just after 11:00 a.m EST on Wednesday, when the Philae lander touched down safely on the comet’s surface.
We can now look at photos from the historic descent. Here are the shots, courtesy of the ESA.
Now that the lander has made it to the comet’s surface, the most failure-prone parts of the €1.4 billion mission are out of the way. But the important work is still to come: after 10 years of travel time, the lander has a measly 2.5 days of battery life to churn out as many measurements as possible. (Once these are dead, the Philae will attempt to keep operating on solar-powered backup batteries, though no one knows how long they will survive.)
Apart from the sense of great human achievement that informs all space missions, the point of Rosetta is to gain insight on the universe’s infancy. Comets are the perfect subjects for such study: unlike stars and planets, whose chemistries evolve slowly but significantly, comets are pretty much the same ice balls they were a few billion years ago.
By analyzing this comet’s composition, Philae will help researchers determine the role that comets played in the nascent days of our solar system and the earth—if their ice brought us water, and if the organic matter in their crusts provided the crucial ingredients for life.