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Philae makes historic landing on comet

Rosetta watched from its orbiting elevation of 19 miles, as its lander Philae touched down safely.

By Brooks Hays
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The Philae lander, viewed from the Rosetta probe after separation. UPI/ESA
The Philae lander, viewed from the Rosetta probe after separation. UPI/ESA

PARIS, Nov. 12 (UPI) -- Mission accomplished. After a tense seven hours during Philae's descent toward comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, European Space Agency officials are surely popping champagne corks at the headquarters in Paris as they celebrate a successful landing.

For the first time in history, a spacecraft has safely touched down on the surface of a comet. Rosetta's epic journey came to a happy climax on Wednesday, after more than 10 years in space and 3.7 billion miles traversed.

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As the 220-pound lander -- a rover-like craft the size of a washing machine -- approached the comet, it successfully pierced the space rock's surface with a pair of harpoons, reeling itself in and anchoring to an alien land where sharp canyons and craters about and where gravity is weak and haphazard. Despite all the dangers, the foul-smelling comet presents, Philae is there -- safe and ready to explore.

"We are there, we are sitting on the surface," said Stephan Ulamec, the Philae lander manager who rejoiced alongside other ESA engineers back at mission control in Darmstadt, Germany.

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Andrea Accomazzo, Rosetta flight operations director, added: "We cannot be happier than we are now."

The jubilation came after a painstaking, sweat-filled wait. Released early Wednesday morning, Philae slowly made its way toward the speeding comet. For seven hours, all ESA officials could do was hope and pray.

Officials in the control room in Germany momentarily lost contact with both Rosetta and Philae as the two crafts parted ways.

"There is no going back now," the agency said in an update of its Rosetta feed.

Rosetta snapped a touching photo of its lander as it broke away, like a mother releasing her young into the wild.

Now, Rosetta must will continue to watch from its orbiting elevation of 19 miles as Philae begins to survey this strange landscape. The lander will get to work immediately using all of its 12 instruments to begin probing the snowman-shaped space rock.

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