Astronomers at Queen's University Belfast have been assisting the first ever landing by a spacecraft on an icy comet tomorrow, Wednesday 12 November.
At 8:35am (GMT) on Wednesday 12 November a robotic lander called Philae will be released from the European Space Agency Rosetta spacecraft, and spend the next 7 hours descending to the comet. A successful touchdown signal will hopefully be received on Earth about 4:00pm (GMT), along with the first pictures from a comet's surface.
Professor Alan Fitzsimmons from the Astrophysics Research Centre at Queen's University and colleagues have spent over a decade studying comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko from Earth and measuring its properties. Professor Fitzsimmons has just returned from Chile, where he used the worlds' most powerful telescopes to perform a final reconnaissance of the comet. Some of his colleagues include former Queen's students now working on the mission.
The 1.3 billion euro Rosetta spacecraft was launched in 2004, and has spent a decade manoeuvring to rendezvous with the comet. Performing 3 flybys of Earth, one of Mars and also passing close to two asteroids, it finally reached comet 67P on 6 August this year.
European and American scientists have spent the time since then making sensitive measurements and taking spectacular images of the comet in preparation for the landing attempt.
Professor Alan Fitzsimmons from the Astrophysics Research Centre at Queen's University will wait with everyone else on Earth, hoping for a successful landing. He said: "We have waited over 10 years for this day, but with the comet being over 317 million miles away, all we can do now is cross our fingers and hope."
"The Rosetta mission realises the ambition of mankind to explore our origins, and discover what is out there. It demonstrates that the European Space Agency plays a major role in the scientific exploration of our Solar system, and Queen's is part of that effort."
"This mission further illustrates Queen's University's position as an global leader in research and its commitment to advancing knowledge and changing lives."
Professor Fitzsimmons will further explain what the mission has told us so far about comets on BBC4 on Sunday at 9:00pm, in a Sky at Night Special programme.
An important measurement is of the water ice making up most of the comet. Astronomers believe that comets like 67P may have delivered all of Earth's water after its formation, 4.5 billion years ago. Rosetta and Philae will test that theory.
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