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In 2004, Europe sent out a spacecraft called the Rosetta probe in hopes of eventually coming into contact with a comet 250 million miles away from Earth. Well, this morning 8/6/2014, a decade later, the Rosetta probe actually reached its destination, and fell into the comet's orbit! That has never happened before. This is in fact the first time (that we know of at least) that man has sent a spacecraft that will be able to orbit and examine a comet up close and personal. In November, things will get even more interesting. That's when the European Rosetta space probe will launch a smaller, currently attached robot called Philae onto the comet, so it can send back images and information to show what the big space rock is made of.
The comet's name is 67P / Churyumov-Gerasimenko.
It is a "misshapen lump of ice and dust swinging in a wide circuit round the Sun at around 34,175 mph (55,000 kmh)". It also is being quietly dubbed the 'rubber duck' comet. (it does look just like a rubber duckie)
Many scientists believe that studying a comet like this can be one way of unlocking the mysteries of the origins of life itself. The thought being that organic materials likely crashed into Earth untold millions, billions of years ago, seeding micro-somethings that eventually blossomed the entirety of life on Earth! It's just one theory of many, in regards to the origins of life. But, even if that's not how it happened, much can be learned and gained by studying a comet in real time. And Rosetta will have 17 months of real time in which to do just that. The probe and the comet will be in locked orbit, as they both are hurled ever closer to the sun.
The ten year journey for Rosetta to get to 67P has been a wild and interesting ride. The spacecraft has ventured about 4 billion miles across the asteroid belt and more than five times the Earth's distance from the Sun. The scientists involved have even used a few planets' gravitational forces in our solar system to help propel Rosetta ever faster (and with less need for internal power combustion) toward the comet. Also of note, its being run be solar power at the moment, with just enough energy contained to heat the equipment on board, to adjust to the frigid temperatures of deep space.
Come November, the little robot Philae will try and land on the comet. Between then and now though, who knows what cool pictures and developments will take place. To keep up with all that, use this NASA link: