A decade of Physics World breakthroughs: 2014 – landing a spacecraft on a comet - Astronomy and space – Physics World9 Dec 2019, 13:16 UTC
Landing stuff on other worlds is hard. Just ask the people behind the Vikram lunar lander, which crashed onto the Moon in September 2019; or the Beresheet lunar lander, which met a similar fate in April; or the Mars Polar Lander, or the Beagle 2, or – well, you get the picture.
So when a little craft called Philae descended towards the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, touched down briefly, bounced off the surface, landed, bounced again, and finally came to rest on this 4.1km by 4.3km chunk of interplanetary ice, we thought it was quite an accomplishment. A month later, the ESA team behind the Philae lander and its parent Rosetta mission won Physics World’s 2014 “Breakthrough of the Year” for making the first non-destructive landing of a spacecraft on a comet nucleus.
In hindsight, Philae’s survival was something of a lucky accident. The harpoon that was meant to secure it to 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko failed to fire. A set of thrusters designed to push it onto the comet didn’t work either. And when the craft finally came to rest, it was in an awkward location, stuck on its side in a dark crevice that prevented its solar panels from functioning and made communication ...