ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA/picture-alliance/dpa/AP
November 12, 2014 01:25 PM

Hundreds of millions of miles from Earth, a European spacecraft made history Wednesday by successfully landing on the icy, dusty surface of a speeding comet – an audacious cosmic first designed to answer big questions about the origin of the universe.

Paolo Ferri, head of mission operations for the European Space Agency, said the landing on the comet named 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko appeared to have been almost perfectly on target.

“Everyone cried,” he said.

The European Space Agency celebrated the cosmic achievement after sweating through a tense seven-hour countdown that began when the Philae lander dropped from the agency’s Rosetta space probe as both it and the comet hurtled through space at 41,000 mph (66,000 kph).

ESA controllers clapped and embraced at mission control in Darmstadt as they got confirmation that the unmanned Rosetta space probe had successfully released the 220-pound, washing-machine-sized Philae lander.

During the descent, scientists were powerless to do anything but watch, because the vast distance to Earth – 500 million kilometers (311 million miles) – made it impossible to send instructions in real time.

Finally, at 11:03 a.m. EST, the agency received a signal from Philae after it touched down on the comet’s icy surface.

“We definitely confirm that the lander is on the surface,” said flight director Andrea Accomazzo.

While further checks are needed to ascertain the state of the lander, the fact that it is resting on the surface of the comet is already a huge success, the highlight of a decade-long mission to study comets and learn more about the origins of these celestial bodies.

Scientists have likened the trillion or so comets in our solar system to time capsules that are virtually unchanged since the earliest moments of the universe.

“By studying one in enormous detail, we can hope to unlock the puzzle of all of the others,” said Mark McCaughrean, a senior scientific adviser to the mission.

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