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European spacecraft catches up to comet, makes history

| Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014, 8:21 p.m.

DARMSTADT, Germany — Turning what seemed like a science fiction tale into reality, an unmanned probe swung alongside a comet on Wednesday after a 4-billion mile chase through outer space over the course of a decade.

At the European Space Agency's operations center in Germany, Rosetta's operations engineer Silvian Lodiot shouted, “We're at the comet!” as he monitored data coming in from the craft 342 million miles away.

The Rosetta probe will orbit and study the giant lump of dust and ice as it hurtles toward the sun and, if all goes according to plan, drop a lander onto the comet, known by the catchy name 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, or 67P for short.

“We have been approaching 67P for such a long time, it is almost surreal to now actually be there,” said Holger Sierks of the Max Planck Institute in Germany. “Today, we are opening a new chapter of the Rosetta mission. And already we know that it will revolutionize cometary science.”

The probe's incredible trip, launched in 2004, marks a milestone in mankind's effort to understand the mysterious ‘shooting stars' that periodically flash past Earth, and which have often been viewed with fear and trepidation.

While the moon, Mars and even asteroids have been visited, no spacecraft has yet gotten so close to a comet. Having achieved this feat, Rosetta will go one step further and drop a lander on 67P's icy surface — a maneuver planned for November.

“You can compare what we've done so far to finding a speck of dust in a big city,” said Gerhard Schwehm, who was lead scientist on the Rosetta mission until his recent retirement.

That's probably an understatement.

To catch their quarry, scientists at the European Space Agency had to overcome a series of hurdles that included a last-minute change of destination — after a carrier rocket failure delayed launch — and a tense hibernation period of 31 months during which the probe was out of contact with ground stations.

Before Rosetta swung alongside 67P with a final thrust, the spacecraft also had to accelerate to 34,000 mph — a speed that required three loops around Earth and one around Mars.

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