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The Big Day…

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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.

Phew.

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…

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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….

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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!

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