News, Science, Technology

Scientists Land Spacecraft On Fast-Moving, Icy Comet

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Illustration of Philae approaching a comet. Image: Wikipedia
Philae approaching a comet. Image: Wikipedia

Imagine that you’re travelling very fast in a car on the highway. You have a pebble in your hand and as you pass by a bucket by the side of the highway, you have to throw the pebble out your car window and into the bucket. And if you miss, it will cost you more than a billion dollars.

That’s something like the task that scientists at the European Space Agency had on Wednesday. It wasn’t a car, of course, and it wasn’t a pebble or a bucket. But it was about as tricky. And no one had ever done it before.

The scientists had to land a spacecraft on the icy surface of a comet that was travelling 130,000 kilometres an hour.

If they’d missed the “bucket” (the “comet”) it would have been disastrous—and extremely costly. But they didn’t miss, and now the spacecraft is sending scientists some very important information.

The comet is called comet 67/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and the spacecraft is called Philae.

The scientists will be using Philae to study the comet to answer some important questions about the universe. For instance, “How did life on Earth begin?”

Comets are older than the Earth. Scientists think that comets contain bits of material that started life on Earth as we know it. Here’s how CBC broadcaster Bob McDonald (host of the radio show Quirks and Quarks) puts it in an article on

Studying comets is studying our own origins. It’s like walking into a bakery after everyone is gone and all the pies are in the oven. By looking at the mess on the floor, you can see all the ingredients that went into the pies – the flour, scraps of fruit, sugar, etc. – and from that figure out what kind of pies are being made.

The European Space Agency launched Philae 10 years ago. Since then, it has travelled more than six billion kilometres to finally begin its important mission.

It has already started sending information about the comet back to Earth, which the scientists will study and analyze. It is also sending photos of the comet, and even sounds.

Related links

Read Bob McDonald’s full article about the Philae’s mission.

Read this previous TKN article about how the frozen water in outer space may contain information about the start of the universe.

NASA has some information about the mission here.

By Jonathan Tilly

Writing/Discussion Prompt
The name of the mission (landing Philae on a comet) is Rosetta. It’s named after the Rosetta Stone, an ancient stone that was used to figure out what the Egyptian hieroglyphics mean. Why do you think scientists named this modern mission Rosetta? What do the two Rosettas have in common?

Reading Prompt: Text Features
Today’s article contains a block quote. A block quote is a quote that is formatted differently from the rest of the text. It is often seperated by spaces above, below, and to the right and left. Why might an author choose to use a block quote instead of inserting the quote directly in the text.

identify a variety of text features and explain how they help readers understand texts (OME, Reading: 2.3).

Identify a variety of text features and explain how they help communicate meaning (OME, Reading: 2.3).

Language Feature: Contractions
A contraction is one word that is created by joining two words together. In addition, when making a contraction, an apostrophe is placed inside the second word and several letters are removed. For example, today’s article includes the contraction, “they’d.” The word, “they’d” is a contraction made from combining “they” and “would.” The letters w-o-u-l are removed.

On the lines below write the contraction for each combination of words.

1. can not _______________________
2. will not ______________________
3. it would ______________________
4. why had ______________________
5. might have ____________________