Right now, yes, right now today Wednesday, a little probe we built called Philae, the size of a dishwasher and weighing just 100kg, is slowly “falling” towards a little comet just 4km across at a leisurely speed of 3.5km/h, far far away from Earth.
It was dropped a few hours ago from a satellite in orbit around the comet and is being slowly pulled by the comet’s own gravity. In a few hours, it will land on the comet, the first ever soft-landing on a comet in our history. All of this is happening with the comet hurtling towards the inner solar system at a speed of 18 km/s.
That satellite we sent, called Rosetta, left Earth 10 years ago (yes, 10 years ago) on an Ariane 5 rocket on a 6 billion kilometre journey to has brought it beyond the orbit of Mars. To preserve its power, it hibernated for 3 years, travelling through space in silence, before successfully waking up earlier this year and transmitting back to us.
It is so far from Earth that the radio signals we receive from Philae and Rosetta take 28min to travel through space and reach us, making us passive spectators of a far away technological feat we designed.
The goal? No less than understand the origin of water on Earth (hence the origin of Life), thought to come from comets who bombarded the Earth in its early life. That comet has travelled from beyond Jupiter, carrying it with it precious water, frozen solid since the dawn of our solar system.
What we need to realise is that this mission was made possible thanks to Europe, as the brainchild of ESA, the European Space Agency which is made up of 20 countries. This mission has involved thousands of scientists and engineers for the last 20 years in an international collaboration to achieve a technological feat:
Imagine blasting off on top of a rocket and shooting a little machine just metres across from our Earth at a speed of 1000s of km/h, travelling 10 years through space to reach an object 500 million kilometres away from here that is just 4km across and travels at 66,000 km/h, successfully getting into orbit around it, accompanying it, and dropping a probe on its rugged surface to study it.
It is a fitting example of what nations can achieve together, just a day after commemorating the centenary of the Great War and remembering the sacrifice of so many, which led to the creation of the League of Nations and later after another deadly war, the United Nations and the birth of Europe to avoid this from ever happening again.
While yesterday we might have felt ashamed for what happened 100 years ago, today we can feel proud. THIS is we can do at our best when we work together.
Good luck Philae and congratulations to all at ESA for what you have already achieved!