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Scientists who dared to land on a comet score a touchdown

The European Space Agency successfully landed a spacecraft the size of a washing machine on a moving comet -- a historic first for space exploration. Tom Clarke of Independent Television News reports on the Philae lander’s amazing touchdown.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    It was a historic first for space exploration.

    The European Space Agency landed a small spacecraft, one the size of a washing machine, on a moving comet speeding through the solar system. The Rosetta spacecraft's Philae lander took this photo of the comet as it descended. Precision was everything. For the smaller lander you see here, an error of one inch could have thrown the lander more than 850 feet off course.

    Tom Clarke of Independent Television News has a report on the day's events.

  • TOM CLARKE:

    Some of these scientists waited 20 years for this moment. Then they had to wait some more. Traveling at the speed of light, a message from the Philae lander took nearly half-an-hour to cover the 300 million miles from the comet to Earth.

    But come it did and, with it, space history.

  • STEPHAN ULAMEC, Philae Lander Manager:

    The first thing he told us was that the harpoons have been fired, rewound, and the landing gear has been moved in time. So we are sitting on the surface.

  • TOM CLARKE:

    Putting the lander's mother ship, Rosetta, into orbit around a comet was audacious enough. 67P, as the comet is known, is tumbling end over end at 40,000 miles an hour.

    But to land a 100-kilogram spacecraft on its forbidding surface, only a few had dared to dream of.

  • DAVID PARKER, U.K. Space Agency:

    Science fiction has become science fact today. Or a better way maybe is, Hollywood is good, but Rosetta is better.

    (APPLAUSE)

  • JIM GREEN, NASA:

    How audacious. How exciting. How unbelievable to be able to dare to land on a comet.

  • TOM CLARKE:

    The Rosetta spacecraft, which carried the lander, was built here but by Airbus Defence and Space in Stevenage. Their main business is making satellites and carefully avoiding mishaps. Rosetta and its lander were almost unthinkably risky.

    RALPH CORDEY, Airbus Defence and Space: When we look at this image, we can see some areas that look kind of benign and kind of smooth. But we can also see big boulders and cliffs. This is not going to be an easy area to land on.

  • TOM CLARKE:

    Despite a successful touchdown, the lander team uncertain how securely Philae is anchored to the comet's surface. In the last hour, it sent these images of its final descent, the closest we have ever had of a comet. But whether the probe is working as it should is as yet unclear.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Doesn't look very friendly.

    PBS will present a special documentary called "To Catch a Comet" that takes you behind the scenes of the Rosetta mission. It will air on many stations next Wednesday. But you can watch it now online at PBS.org.

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