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A historic day…

Wow… I don’t know how I’m going to write up what happened today, I really don’t. It was just… incredible, really, a day of highs and lows, soaring joy and fleeting despair, celebration and pessimism… Ok, let’s give it a go…

It’s now 8pm here in the UK, and I’ve been on this laptop since 6am this morning with only a couple of brief pauses for food, water (well, tea, Brit, you know…) and air. I’ve been flipping between Twitter and Facebook so many times through the day I’ll probably develop RSI in my typing fingers, and my keyboard is screaming at me “Enough! Leave me in peace!!!” But not yet, not yet…

In the last post on this blog I wrote about today’s events leading up to the deployment of Philae, all shown live on a fantastic ESA webcast. What happened next? Well, there was then a two hour gap, filled with interviews with talking heads and re-runs of videos and clips. I decided it was time to open and eat a handful of my “Good luck” peanuts – it’s a tradition now for us spacey types to eat peanuts on a landing day…


…but then suddenly people started Tweeting and FB posting about blurred images glimpsed on screens over the webcast – could these be the much-anticipated “farewell” shots taken of ROSETTA by little Philae after it had started to drop away? Maybe… but they were very blurry, out of focus, smeared…

farewell 1b crop

What the..?? Did that mean the camera wasn’t working? Was something wrong??

No, neither of those… the pictures “doing the rounds” were just poor quality screen grabs of poor quality images, and when the real image was released, well, the place erupted and the internet threatened to melt. This is what we saw…

farewell 1b

WOW!!! LOOK AT THAT!!! That’s the ROSETTA orbiter, top right, one of its huge solar array wings being lit by a burst of sunlight… That picture was taken by little Philae as it fell away, plunging down towards 67P, and it’s been hailed as an “iconic” image already.

But that was just the warm-up act. Soon after that Farewell image was shown, to everyone’s utter amazement it was announced that the OSIRIS cameras had managed to image Philae as it fell away – and the pictures were ready to be shown by OSIRIS PI Holger Sierks!! WHAT?? REALLY??? Were we dreaming??? Did we just imagine that??? OSIRIS images, barely a couple of hours old, being released into the wild???? Could it be true???? What was the catch?

It was true, and there was no catch. A delighted Holger Sierks beamed from ear to ear as he shared his team’s images with the watching world. The first was a wide angle view, showing Philae as really just a bright “star” near the middle…


(these images all Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA )

But the second one was much more promising… little Philae looked bigger, over on the left hand side of the image…


Oh the cheers and applause at ESOC when that one was shown! But then Holger showed a zoomed in view of that second image and the place just went nuts…

farewell 1

Look… a spaceship… dropping towards a comet… its legs outstretched…

A fantastic image, another icon right there… but I thought it could be tidied up a little, and after a little work this is what I pulled out of that, re-orienting it to make it look like it was actually going in for landing, too…

farewell 4b

Un-be-LEE-vable!! And a good sign, surely, for the rest of the day…?

I have been extremely critical of the OSIRIS team on this blog, with, I feel, very good reason. Their image hording in the run-up to today has been shameful. But today, credit where credit is due, they did a fantastic job taking and then releasing their images so quickly. Well done to them.

Another pause in proceedings then, and the ESA webcast slipped back into “lurk” mode, showing live shots of the ESOC control room without commentary, but accompanied by a bizarre and migraine-inducing jazz soundtrack. I know jazz has its fans, but I’m not one of them. It’s just not music to me. So this interlude was torture for me, and on Twitter and Facebook I *pleaded* with the ESA team to find another CD in someone’s car, but to no avail. So I made this image, which many Brits “got” but left others baffled… Which camp do you fall into, I wonder? ;-


With an hour or so left to go until the receipt of signals from Philae confirming she had touched down safely, suddenly things started moving quickly, and the live broadcast resumed. But, as is often the case now, it was Twitter which provided the next image – an image taken by Philae, looking down at the comet as it dropped towards it!


Some very familiar features on that, but that wasn’t the point, the point was that the lander was working – and was aimed – perfectly at that point, which was a huge confidence boost!

And then all we could do was sit back and wait… as the predicted/time delayed time of Philae’s “I’ve landed!” communications window opened, everyone held their breath, and waited. And waited. We watched the live feed from mission control, and as the minutes ticked by without any signal coming in we noticed, with alarm, how worried and tense they all looked in there…


… and when we saw them reaching for their mobiles we did wonder if the ROSETTA team was going on Twitter themselves in an attempt to find out what was going on…


And still the minutes ticked by. I sat here, laptop on my knee, Peggy jumping on and off me, bored and feeling ignored, oblivious to the way my insides were absolutely tying themeselves up in knots –

Then, a cheer, and another, and applause, and suddenly people in mission control were hugging and cheering and slapping each other on the back…




Success? It looked like it! Why else would they be cheering like that? Then a Tweet came in, and was retweeted again and again and again…


Philae had phoned home! The lander was down! It had done it!! So the question now was: when would we see the images of the surface?

Because of the time delay it was always going to be another half hour before we saw anything from the lander after that first confirmation signal came in, so all we could do was wait… again

Eventually images started to trickle out – not because they were released, but because they were glimpsed on screens being shown on various live feeds and then grabbed and shared by space enthusiasts watching. So, not long after landing, we were seeing views like these…




For a while there was HUGE excitement online when an image began circulating which looked very much like it was actually a “selfie” taken by Philae on the surface of the comet!!


…but at the time of writing (almost half nine, good god!!!) the consensus seems to be that that is NOT a surface image, but an image taken on Earth when the lander was being tested. Shame…

And then, out of nowhere, rumours began to circulate that all was not well with Philae. People were saying that something had gone wrong with the landing gear, namely the harpoons hadn’t fired to secure Philae to the surface. In good news, the “ice screws” were apparently turning, hslping to hold Philae down, but the loss of the harpoons was potentially a big blow… which led me to create and post this…


Sorry, I just couldn’t resist it…!

Time passed, rumours blossomed then died down again, until eventually ESA announced that they would be holding a media briefing, with the latest news about the mission. The time scheduled for the conference to begin came, and went… nothing… It was rescheduled, and that time came and went too. I know I started to feel all kinds of bad feelings about the mission, and wondered of they were preparing to break Bad News to us. When the media briefing began, it was clear pretty soon that that wasn’t going to happen. But the situation with Philae was… well… complicated…

It turns out that Philae landed pretty much smack bang in the middle of her planned landing zone, but then instead of her leg harpoons firing and securing her to the surface something went wrong… and she went back up again, bouncing gently off the comet back up into the air, where she turned around. At this point her comms link with Rosetta fluctuated, coming and going, which had turned the team quite pale, but then Philae had come back down again, and this time had stayed down. So she had, effectively, landed TWICE on 67P. How incredible is that? Mankind’s first landing on a comet was actually a double landing!

And the situation after that? Well, Philae had taken images, as planned, and gathered a lot of data very quickly, but the comms window with Rosetta had shut before Philae had had a chance to send everything back, so we weren’t going to see the pictures of the surface tonight, which was a huge shame, obviously, but that’s just the way it is, and after all the wonderful events of the day it would be a shame to dwell on that so we’ll just have to be patient and wait until tomorrow for those. And there’s going to be a media briefing at 1pm GMT tomorrow, when everything will become a lot clearer. (Typical… I’ll still be at work… I’ll have to catch up when I get back…)

One thing they will want to do is *find* Philae. It seems that when it made its first landing it was right on course, and came down exactly where planned, i.e. around here (circled in red)…


…but when it bounced where did it end up? How far away did it travel? Some commentators suggest it came back down as far as 500m away from its original landing site, but in which direction? The lander could be anywhere. No doubt the OSIRIS team will be carrying out blanket imaging of the comet and scouring their images for any sign of the lander. They’re probably taking those pictures already.

…and that was the big day.

It’s now almost 11.30pm, and I’ve been up since 6am, and that was after just 3 hours sleep. I feel so tired I could lie down on that floor over there and sleep for a week, I swear, but I wouldn’t have missed any of it for the world. It has been an absolute privilege to follow history being made from my own home – from my own sofa in my own home, at that – and to share the events of the day with friends and strangers from around the globe. Today we were witnesses to history. Today was mankind’s first ever landing on a comet, and that will never happen again. There are so few firsts left in space exploration. We have already had the first man in space, the first man on the Moon, the first landings on Mars, Venus and Titan, and asteroids. The first landing on a comet was one of the few firsts left – along with first manned landing on Mars, the first landing on Europa and the first fly-by of Pluto – and today we watched that happen almost in real-time.

For countless centuries we viewed comets with fear, dreading their appearance in our skies. Eventually our dread turned to fascination, and we eagerly trained our telescopes on them to learn all we could about them. Eventually we spied on them with spacecraft, taking the first close-up images of their strange, irregular shapes and surface features, but still craved to know more, so we designed and built a spacecraft which would land on one and let us stare straight into its eyes and heart, and see its icy soul. That’s why, tonight, after a journey of ten years and billions of miles, and a tour of the inner solar system, a plucky little spacecraft is sitting on the surface of Comet 67P, and why we are, in between yawns, rejoicing.


And with that it’s time for me to call it a day. I hope some of you have enjoyed reading about how one space enthusiast watched history being made today, and I hope that you were able to follow today’s events from wherever you were, too.

More tomorrow. Bed beckons. Goodnight.

And goodnight, little Philae, wherever you are.

The Big Day…


As I type this, the Philae lander is on its way down to the surface of Comet 67P. Around an hour and a half ago, after a rather tense morning – news came out early in the day of overnight problems with a part of the lander – there was great celebration and much punching of the air at ESOC when a signal was received from ROSETTA confirming that Philae had separated safely from the orbiter and was on its way to its landing site.

Godspeed and good luck, little one, we wish you a safe landing, somewhere soft inbetween the boulders, cliffs and pits down there below you. Back here on Earth, all we can do now is wait.

So… wow, what a morning! I got up at 6am – having finally dragged myself away from the internet just before 3am – and straight away (yes, even before putting the kettle on) went online to watch the live feed from ESA Mission Control. It was pretty much deserted, lots of empty desks and unattended monitors, rather like a branch of PC World just after opening time; all that was needed was for a young tech geek, straight from school and proudly wearing his first white work shirt, to bounce over to the camera and ask brightly “Can I help you with anything?” With nothing much going in I took a few moments to attend to the cuppa situation and feed an increasingly-impatient and yowly Peggy, then settle down and watch the show.

For the next couple of hours it was pretty quiet, with a few interviews scattered here and there, re-runs of re-cap films, etc, and like many people following the mission with the webcast on in the background I was flipping madly between Facebook and Twitter, reading the posts and Tweets of people involved in or following the mission. There was a lot of concern about an overnight problem with Philae – the apparent failure of one of the systems meant to keep it on the comet once it lands – but eventually that concern seemed to evaporate, and after more interviews with various mission scientists and engineers, finally, at just after 9, word came through that Philae had separated from ROSETTA as planned, and was on its way down to the surface.

So that’s it. Later today Philae will reach Comet 67P. Just what happens then – a safe, soft landing… a rebound off back into space… a full-blown crash – is in the future, we have no idea what will happen. We don’t even know what Philae will land on. Will it touch down onto a firm, dust- or ice-covered surface? Will it sink slowly into a pit of dust, and be smothered to death before even having a chance to phone home? Will bad luck strike and set Philae down on a boulder, leaving it lurching at a crazy angle, or tipping it up completely, leaving it lying on its back uselessly, like a turtle? SO many questions…

…and now, literally as I’m writing this,post, word has come in – after a VERY long, nail-biting, melodramatic X Factor vote-like pause, when all the people looking at the screens in Mission Control looked VERY concerned!!!! – that Philae is transmitting data back up to ROSETTA, which is a HUGE thing, because if the lander hadn’t made contact that would have been it, game over.


Time to just sit back, take a breath, and think about the significance of today.

I made this picture at ridiculous o’clock this morning which sums up why today is so special in historical terms…


A century ago, Europe was bleeding, crying, and dying. Nation was turning against nation, and the clouds of war were thick and heavy above the continent. The future looked very bleak, as the War To End All Wars began to sweep across Europe like a forest fire. Today, as we look back at those terrible days through the mists of time, our battles are political, and economic, not military. And today a European space probe, designed and built by men and women from all across the continent, working towards a common goal, will land on a comet, beginning an exciting new chapter in the history of space exploration and proving what we, as a species, can do when we set our minds to it and refuse to be daunted by the odds.

Today is significant for another reason. Today ESA steps out from beneath NASA’s shadow, and makes history of its own. NASA could have been a part of this mission – it was supposed to be – but that didn’t happen, so ESA bravely went it alone, and now our space agency (oh it feels so good to say that… OUR space agency!) is just a handful of hours away from landing on a comet. Whatever happens later today, if Philae succeeds or fails, ESA will come out of this a different organisation – braver. more confident, stronger. It will have seen and harnessed the power of social media, and set a new incredibly high standard for public outreach and involvement for space agencies around the world.

It’s now 11.48 here in the UK, and nothing much is due to happen in the next hour or so. As it stands, Philae is dropping slowly down towards 67P, exactly as planned, and now everyone is waiting for the return of the first pictures taken after the orbiter and probe separated, showing Philae dropping down towards 67P. They are due in sometime before 1pm my time, and they should be very special indeed. Then, after that, the landing itself, due for just after 4pm my time…

As is traditional for spacecraft landings I have invested in a packet of peanuts – even though I hate them, disgusting crunchy, grainy, chalky things – and will be forcing some of those down later, just as I did for the landings of Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity….


Well, it can’t hurt, and hey, if I didn’t eat some and something went wrong with the landing I’d be forever wondering if it was my fault…

More soon! Time to grab some lunch!