Inside look: How to land on a comet

The European Space Agency successfully landed its Rosetta system on a hurtling comet

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Amazing stuff

The European Space Agency launched the Rosetta mission in 2004 and this week it completed its primary mission: Land on a comet. In its travels the spacecraft has zipped by Mars, snapped a few shots of the asteroids Steins and Lutetia, mostly hibernated for three years awaiting a rendezvous with the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Rosetta includes a main mother ship and Philae, the craft that actually landed on the comet. Rosetta will be the first spacecraft to land on and escort a comet as it enters our inner solar system, observing at close range how the comet changes as it hurtles towards the Sun.

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In the beginning

Surrounded by four 100-m lightning towers, the first Ariane 5G+, atop its mobile launch platform, stands on the pad at the Launch Zone (ZL-3) of the Ariane Launch Complex no.3 (ELA-3) at the Guiana Space Centre, Europe's space port, on the evening of February 24, 2004.

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Mission not-impossible

Illustrated factbox on the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft mission.

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Sing me a comet song

Artist's impression of the 'singing comet' 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The singing sounds are thought to be oscillations in the magnetic field around the comet. They were picked up by the Rosetta Plasma Consortium -- a suite of five instruments on the spacecraft that is orbiting the comet.

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Say what?

What does a singing comet sound like?

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REUTERS/Ralph Orlowski

Can you hear me now?

A video projection shows a signal that was resent by European Space Agency's satellite Rosetta to the agency's mission control center in Darmstadt January 20, 2014.

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A scale model of the Rosetta spacecraft is pictured at the European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt January 20, 2014.

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On track

Trajectory of Rosetta’s orbit, focusing on the maneuvers on 12 November.

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Breaking up

Artist impression showing Philae separating from Rosetta and descending to the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

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I see you

Rosetta captured some amazing shots of the lander as it began its seven-hour descent to the surface of the comet.

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I see you part II

Rosetta and Philae lander.

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Space selfie

The Philae lander of the European Space Agency's Rosetta mission took this self-portrait of the spacecraft on Oct. 7, 2014, at a distance of 10 miles (16 kilometers) from comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.  The image, taken with Philae's CIVA camera, captures the side of the Rosetta spacecraft and one of Rosetta’s 46-foot-long (14-meter-long) solar wings, with the comet in the background.

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Target on sight

Landing on the comet.

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The complicated part

At the moment of touchdown on Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, landing gear absorbed the forces of landing while ice screws in each of the probe’s feet and a harpoon system locked Philae to the surface. At the same time, a thruster on top of the lander pushed it down to counteract the impulse of the harpoon imparted in the opposite direction.

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Size matters

How big is the comet?

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NASA too

Rosetta, the European Space Agency's cometary probe with NASA contributions, is seen in an undated artist's rendering.

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Outer space

A jagged horizon of the nucleus of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko appears in this image taken by the navigation camera on the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft during the second half of October 2014. The image was taken from a distance of less than 6 miles (10 kilometers) from the surface.

Real time

Video of landing on a comet.

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Big Iron

For landing operations, ESA is using its 'big iron' - two of the Agency's three ultra-sensitive 35m deep-space tracking stations, these ones located at Malargüe, Argentina, and New Norcia, Australia. The two stations will be sharing communication duties in alteration, with typical 'passes' -- the time slots when Rosetta is actually in visibility -- lasting about 10 to 13 hours.

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Looking at you kid

A shot of the comet from a distance of 9.7 km

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Asteroid visit

Rosetta visits Lutetia asteroid.

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Poster child

Rosetta mission poster