Comet Landing an ‘Engineering Miracle’

Last Update: November 17, 2014 at 5:18 pm


Last week, Philae, a washing machine-sized spacecraft built by the European Space Agency, landed safely on a comet. This was the first spacecraft in human history to do so. During its brief life, Philae examined the surface of the comet known as 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko with a level of detail impossible from an orbiting spacecraft or Earth-based telescope. It was a remarkable success for the European Space Agency and a historic feat for humanity — no space agency had ever softly landed on a comet before. The landing was broadcast live and followed by millions of people around the world, and was so popular that it briefly eclipsed discussions of Kim Kardashian on Twitter.

Philae and its mothership, the robotic science spacecraft Rosetta, were designed, built and flown by the Europeans. NASA, so used to paving the way in exploration, was merely along for the ride on this one, having funded a variety of scientific instruments on both Philae and Rosetta. It’s a position the U.S. space agency must become more accustomed to: As its budgets shrink, so do its ambitions. While Europe, Russia, China, and India all make ambitious plans to push their robotic probes deeper into space, budget cuts have forced NASA to abandon the exploration of nearly every corner of the solar system in the coming years.