Cosmic first: European spacecraft lands on comet

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Cosmic first: European spacecraft lands on comet
This November 13, 2014 handout photo provided by the European Space Agency (ESA) shows the surface of the 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet as seen from the Philae lander, which landed on the comet's surface. (Photo ESA via Getty Images)
This November 13, 2014 handout photo provided by the European Space Agency (ESA) shows the first panoramic 'postcard' from the surface of a comet returned by Rosetta's lander Philae. (Photo ESA via Getty Images)
We're signing off shortly, but we leave you with replay hlighlights of this afternoon's events https://t.co/K4IRFgsn2y
AUGUST 3: In this handout from the European Space Agency (ESA), the comet Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is seen in a photo taken by the Rosetta spacecraft with the OSIRIS narrow-angle camera August 3, 2014 in space. ESA's Rosetta spacecraft became the first to rendezvous with a comet and will follow it on the journey around the sun. (Photo by ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA via Getty Images)
"Maybe today we didn't just land once...we even landed twice!" #cometlanding https://t.co/SMzkcRTVWg
History has been made!! #rosetta has landed on the comet! The instant reaction in the media room at ESA in Darmstadt, Germany
I’m on the surface but my harpoons did not fire. My team is hard at work now trying to determine why. #CometLanding
DARMSTADT, GERMANY - NOVEMBER 12: (EDITORIAL USE ONLY) In this November 12, 2014 handout photo provided by the European Space Agency (ESA) the Philae lander is pictured on its way to the 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet after a successful separation from the Rosetta probe. The image was taken with the lander's CIVA-P imaging system and captures one of Rosetta's 14 metre-long solar arrays. ESA later successfully landed Philae, making it the first man-made craft to ever land on a comet. The Philae lander, launched from the Rosetta probe, is a mini laboratory that will gather data on the comet. (Photo ESA via Getty Images)
Before we go, thanks to all of you for sharing this epic day with us and for all your messages cheering us on! #cometlanding
DARMSTADT, GERMANY - NOVEMBER 12: (EDITORIAL USE ONLY) In this November 12, 2014 handout photo provided by the European Space Agency (ESA) the Philae lander is pictured on its way to the 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet after a successful separation from the Rosetta probe. ESA later successfully landed Philae, making it the first man-made craft to ever land on a comet. The Philae lander, launched from the Rosetta probe, is a mini laboratory that will gather data on the comet. (Photo ESA via Getty Images)
.@WilliamShatner touchdown confirmed for away team @philae2014, captain!
A model of Rosetta lander Philae stands on a model of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, at the European Space Agency ESA in Darmstadt, Germany, Wednesday, Nov.12, 2014. Europe's Rosetta space probe was launched in 2004 with the aim of studying the comet and learning more about one of the biggest questions about the origin of the universe. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)
A model of the landing module 'Philae' is pictured at the ESA/ESOC (European Space Agency / European Space Operation Center) in Darmstadt, western Germany, on November 12, 2014, as European probe Philae is poised to land on a comet, the culmination of a historic quest to explore an enigma of the Solar System. After a trek of more than a decade, the mini lab called Philae separated on schedule from its mother ship Rosetta. Philae is to land on 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, a comet now more than 510 million kilometres (320 million miles) from Earth and racing towards the Sun. AFP PHOTO / DANIEL ROLAND (Photo credit should read DANIEL ROLAND/AFP/Getty Images)
Scientistswait for the first picture transmitted by the European Space Agency's (ESA) robot craft Philae, in the scientific mission observation centre of the French space agency Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales (CNES) in Toulouse, southern France, on November 12, 2014, as Philae carries out a 20-kms (12-mile) descent toward the Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet after being launched from space probe Rosetta, following a 10-year journey. Europe's Rosetta spacecraft made contact with its robot craft Philae soon after the lander embarked on November 12 on a solo, seven-hour descent to a comet, ground controllers said. Astrophysicists hope Philae will unlock knowledge about the origins of the Solar System and even life on Earth, which some believe may have started with comets 'seeding' the planet with life-giving carbon molecules and water. AFP PHOTO / REMY GABALDA (Photo credit should read REMY GABALDA/AFP/Getty Images)
Thank you for the wonderful messages of support today; I’ll keep an eye on @philae2014 & we’ll have a status update tomorrow #CometLanding
National Centre for Space Studies (CNES) president Jean-Yves Le Gall (L), French President Francois Hollande and French astrophysicist Francis Rocard look at a model of Rosetta lander Philae during a broadcast of the Rosetta mission on the 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet at the Cite des Sciences in Paris on November 12, 2014. A European probe made the first-ever landing on a comet in a quest to explore the origins of the Solar System, but there were concerns over whether it was fastened securely enough to carry out its mission. AFP PHOTO/POOL/JACQUES BRINON (Photo credit should read JACQUES BRINON/AFP/Getty Images)
DARMSTADT, GERMANY - NOVEMBER 12: Scientists celebrate in the main control room at ESA's Operations Centre, ESOC, as separation of the Philae lander from ESA Rosetta orbiter is confirmed on November 12, 2014. The lander separated from Rosetta earlier on Wednesday and headed towards the surface of the comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko 67P which is moving at the speed of more than 80,000 miles (128,747 kilometers) per hour. The probe is named after the Rosetta stone, a stele of Egyptian origin and the lander is named after Philae, an island in Lake Nasser, Egypt. (Photo by European Space Agency/Pool/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Journalists film near a giant screen featuring Andrea Accomazzo (C), Rosetta flight operations director celebrating with European Space Agency (ESA) scientists after the announcement of the first-ever landing on a comet, done by European probe Philae, at theESA/ESOC in Darmstadt, western Germany, on November 12, 2014. The mini lab called Philae landed on 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet climaxing a historic quest to explore one of the enigmas of the Solar System. AFP PHOTO / DANIEL ROLAND (Photo credit should read DANIEL ROLAND/AFP/Getty Images)
Scientists look at the first picture transmitted by the European Space Agency's (ESA) robot craft Philae, in the scientific mission observation centre of the French space agency Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales (CNES) in Toulouse, southern France, on November 12, 2014, as Philae carries out a 20-kms (12-mile) descent toward the Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet after being launched from space probe Rosetta, following a 10-year journey. Europe's Rosetta spacecraft made contact with its robot craft Philae soon after the lander embarked on November 12 on a solo, seven-hour descent to a comet, ground controllers said. Astrophysicists hope Philae will unlock knowledge about the origins of the Solar System and even life on Earth, which some believe may have started with comets 'seeding' the planet with life-giving carbon molecules and water. AFP PHOTO / REMY GABALDA (Photo credit should read REMY GABALDA/AFP/Getty Images)
Scientists look on a computer screen at the first picture transmitted by the European Space Agency's (ESA) robot craft Philae, in the scientific mission observation centre of the French space agency Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales (CNES) in Toulouse, southern France, on November 12, 2014, as Philae carries out a 20-kms (12-mile) descent toward the Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet after being launched from space probe Rosetta, following a 10-year journey. Europe's Rosetta spacecraft made contact with its robot craft Philae soon after the lander embarked on November 12 on a solo, seven-hour descent to a comet, ground controllers said. Astrophysicists hope Philae will unlock knowledge about the origins of the Solar System and even life on Earth, which some believe may have started with comets 'seeding' the planet with life-giving carbon molecules and water. AFP PHOTO / REMY GABALDA (Photo credit should read REMY GABALDA/AFP/Getty Images)
Scientists look on a computer screen at the first picture transmitted by the European Space Agency's (ESA) robot craft Philae, in the scientific mission observation centre of the French space agency Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales (CNES) in Toulouse, southern France, on November 12, 2014, as Philae carries out a 20-kms (12-mile) descent toward the Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet after being launched from space probe Rosetta, following a 10-year journey. Europe's Rosetta spacecraft made contact with its robot craft Philae soon after the lander embarked on November 12 on a solo, seven-hour descent to a comet, ground controllers said. Astrophysicists hope Philae will unlock knowledge about the origins of the Solar System and even life on Earth, which some believe may have started with comets 'seeding' the planet with life-giving carbon molecules and water. AFP PHOTO / REMY GABALDA (Photo credit should read REMY GABALDA/AFP/Getty Images)
Scientists work in the scientific mission observation centre of the French space agency Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales (CNES) in Toulouse, southern France, on November 12, 2014, as they wait for the European Space Agency's (ESA) robot craft Philae to land on the Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet after being launched from European space probe Rosetta, following a ten year journey. Europe's Rosetta spacecraft made contact with its robot craft Philae soon after the lander embarked on November 12 on a solo, seven-hour descent to a comet, ground controllers said. Astrophysicists hope Philae will unlock knowledge about the origins of the Solar System and even life on Earth, which some believe may have started with comets 'seeding' the planet with life-giving carbon molecules and water. AFP PHOTO / REMY GABALDA (Photo credit should read REMY GABALDA/AFP/Getty Images)
A scientist wears a t-shirt depicting the European Space Agency's (ESA) robot craft Philae in the scientific mission observation centre of the French space agency Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales (CNES) in Toulouse, southern France, on November 12, 2014, as Philae carries out a descent to land on the Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet after being launched from European space probe Rosetta, following a ten year journey. Europe's Rosetta spacecraft made contact with its robot craft Philae soon after the lander embarked on November 12 on a solo, seven-hour descent to a comet, ground controllers said. Astrophysicists hope Philae will unlock knowledge about the origins of the Solar System and even life on Earth, which some believe may have started with comets 'seeding' the planet with life-giving carbon molecules and water. AFP PHOTO / REMY GABALDA (Photo credit should read REMY GABALDA/AFP/Getty Images)
Scientists look on a computer screen at the first picture transmitted by the European Space Agency's (ESA) robot craft Philae, in the scientific mission observation centre of the French space agency Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales (CNES) in Toulouse, southern France, on November 12, 2014, as Philae carries out a 20-kms (12-mile) descent toward the Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet after being launched from space probe Rosetta, following a 10-year journey. Europe's Rosetta spacecraft made contact with its robot craft Philae soon after the lander embarked on November 12 on a solo, seven-hour descent to a comet, ground controllers said. Astrophysicists hope Philae will unlock knowledge about the origins of the Solar System and even life on Earth, which some believe may have started with comets 'seeding' the planet with life-giving carbon molecules and water. AFP PHOTO / REMY GABALDA (Photo credit should read REMY GABALDA/AFP/Getty Images)
Scientists work in the scientific mission observation centre of the French space agency Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales (CNES) in Toulouse, southern France, on November 12, 2014, as they wait for the European Space Agency's (ESA) robot craft Philae to land on the Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet after being launched from European space probe Rosetta, following a ten year journey. Europe's Rosetta spacecraft made contact with its robot craft Philae soon after the lander embarked on November 12 on a solo, seven-hour descent to a comet, ground controllers said. Astrophysicists hope Philae will unlock knowledge about the origins of the Solar System and even life on Earth, which some believe may have started with comets 'seeding' the planet with life-giving carbon molecules and water. AFP PHOTO / REMY GABALDA (Photo credit should read REMY GABALDA/AFP/Getty Images)
IN SPACE - AUGUST 3: In this handout from the European Space Agency (ESA), the comet Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is seen in a detail photo taken by the Rosetta spacecraft with the OSIRIS narrow-angle camera August 3, 2014 in space. ESA's Rosetta spacecraft became the first to rendezvous with a comet and will follow it on the journey around the sun. (Photo by ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA via Getty Images)
The logo of the European Space Agency (ESA) is seen at the ESA/ESOC (European Space Agency / European Space Operation Center) in Darmstadt, western Germany, on November 12, 2014, as European probe Philae is poised to land on a comet, the culmination of a historic quest to explore an enigma of the Solar System. After a trek of more than a decade, the mini lab called Philae separated on schedule from its mother ship Rosetta. Philae is to land on 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, a comet now more than 510 million kilometres (320 million miles) from Earth and racing towards the Sun. AFP PHOTO / DANIEL ROLAND (Photo credit should read DANIEL ROLAND/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman sits beside a computer screen where is seen the first picture transmitted by the European Space Agency's (ESA) robot craft Philae, in the scientific mission observation centre of the French space agency Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales (CNES) in Toulouse, southern France, on November 12, 2014, as Philae carries out a 20-kilometre (12-mile) descent toward the Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet after being launched from space probe Rosetta, following a ten year journey. Europe's Rosetta spacecraft made contact with its robot craft Philae soon after the lander embarked on November 12 on a solo, seven-hour descent to a comet, ground controllers said. Astrophysicists hope Philae will unlock knowledge about the origins of the Solar System and even life on Earth, which some believe may have started with comets 'seeding' the planet with life-giving carbon molecules and water. AFP PHOTO / REMY GABALDA (Photo credit should read REMY GABALDA/AFP/Getty Images)
A man stands near a model of the European Space Agency's (ESA) robot craft Philae as he visits the Cite de l'espace (Space City) in Toulouse, southern France, on November 12, 2014, on the day Philae began a 20-kilometre (12-mile) descent toward the Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet after being launched from the space probe Rosetta, following a ten year journey. Europe's Rosetta spacecraft made contact with its robot craft Philae soon after the lander embarked on November 12 on a solo, seven-hour descent to a comet, ground controllers said. Astrophysicists hope Philae will unlock knowledge about the origins of the Solar System and even life on Earth, which some believe may have started with comets 'seeding' the planet with life-giving carbon molecules and water. AFP PHOTO / REMY GABALDA (Photo credit should read REMY GABALDA/AFP/Getty Images)
Scientists follow the flight of the Rosetta spacecraft from the control centre of the European Space Agency (ESA) in Darmstadt, western Germany, on August 6, 2014. After a decade-long quest spanning six billion kilometres the European Rosetta probe comes face to face with the Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The moment marks a key phase of the most ambitious project ever undertaken by the European Space Agency. (BORIS ROESSLER/AFP/Getty Images)
Graphic shows Europe's unmanned Rosetta probe.
Scientists follow the flight of the Rosetta spacecraft from the control centre of the European Space Agency (ESA) in Darmstadt, western Germany, on August 6, 2014. After a decade-long quest spanning six billion kilometres the European Rosetta probe comes face to face with the Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The moment marks a key phase of the most ambitious project ever undertaken by the European Space Agency. (BORIS ROESSLER/AFP/Getty Images)
FILE - This image provided by the European Space Agency ESA shows an artist'€™s impression of the Rosetta orbiter deploying the Philae lander to comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. The image is not to scale; the Rosetta spacecraft measures 32 m across including the solar arrays, while the comet nucleus is thought to be about 4 km wide. Scientists at the European Space Agency are expecting their comet-chasing probe Rosetta to wake from almost three years of hibernation at 11 a.m. Monday Jan. 20, 2014 (1000 GMT; 5 a.m. EST) and phone home to say all is well. (AP Photo/ESA, C.Carreau, File)
This combination photo provided by the European Space Agency (ESA) on July 10, 2010 shows the asteroid "Lutetia" shot by the comet chaser "Rosetta". The European Space Agency has taken the closest look yet at asteroid Lutetia in an extraordinary quest some 280 million miles in outer space between Mars and Jupiter. The comet-chaser Rosetta transmitted its first pictures from the largest asteroid ever visited by a satellite Saturday night July 10, 2010 after it flew by Lutetia as close as 1,900 miles (3,200 kilometers), ESA said in Darmstadt, Germany. (AP Photo/ESA)

Using the CIVA camera on Rosetta's Philae lander, the spacecraft have snapped a 'selfie' at comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko from a distance of about 16 km from the surface of the comet. The image was taken on 7 October and captures the side of the Rosetta spacecraft and one of Rosetta's 14 m-long solar wings, with the comet in the background.

Two images with different exposure times were combined to bring out the faint details in this very high contrast situation. The comet's active 'neck' region is clearly visible, with streams of dust and gas extending away from the surface. (European Space Agency)

What @philae2014 will do to keep busy during the 7hr descent to #67P: http://t.co/xEDMqcURZT #CometLanding http://t.co/EiOomNLg4p
In this handout illustration from the European Space Agency (ESA), the Rosetta spacecraft is seen. ESA's Rosetta spacecraft became the first to rendezvous with a comet and will follow it on the journey around the sun. (Photo by ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA via Getty Images)
How I’m going to get into position to deploy @philae2014 (& what I do afterwards!): http://t.co/Z2A14IxE6U #67P #CometLanding
AUGUST 3: In this handout from the European Space Agency (ESA), the comet Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is seen in a photo taken by the Rosetta spacecraft with the OSIRIS narrow-angle camera August 3, 2014 in space. ESA's Rosetta spacecraft became the first to rendezvous with a comet and will follow it on the journey around the sun. (Photo by ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA via Getty Images)
Scientists follow the flight of the Rosetta spacecraft from the control centre of the European Space Agency (ESA) in Darmstadt, western Germany, on August 6, 2014. After a decade-long quest spanning six billion kilometres the European Rosetta probe comes face to face with the Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The moment marks a key phase of the most ambitious project ever undertaken by the European Space Agency. (BORIS ROESSLER/AFP/Getty Images)
The European Ariane V rocket, carrying spacecraft Rosetta, stands at its launching pad at the Kourou space base, French Guiana, Wednesday Feb. 25, 2004 in this photo provided by the European Space Agency. The rocket will propel the Rosetta craft into space Thursday, Feb. 26, 2004. If the mission succeeds, it will break new ground by placing a lander on a swift, icy comet. (AP Photo/ESA/CNES/Arianespace)
The European Ariane V rocket, carrying spacecraft Rosetta, stands at its launching pad at the Kourou space base, French Guiana, Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2004, in this photo provided by the European Space Agency. The rocket will propel the Rosetta craft into space Thursday, Feb. 26, 2004. If the mission succeeds, it will break new ground by placing a lander on a swift, icy comet. (AP Photo/ESA/CNES/Arianespace)
Scientists work in the scientific mission observation centre of the French space agency Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales (CNES) in Toulouse, southern France, on November 12, 2014, as they wait for the European Space Agency's (ESA) robot craft Philae to land on the Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet after being launched from the space probe Rosetta, following a ten year journey. Europe's Rosetta spacecraft made contact with its robot craft Philae soon after the lander embarked on November 12 on a solo, seven-hour descent to a comet, ground controllers said. Astrophysicists hope Philae will unlock knowledge about the origins of the Solar System and even life on Earth, which some believe may have started with comets 'seeding' the planet with life-giving carbon molecules and water. AFP PHOTO / REMY GABALDA (Photo credit should read REMY GABALDA/AFP/Getty Images)
The entrance of the ESA/ESOC (European Space Agency / European Space Operation Center) in Darmstadt, western Germany, is pictured on November 12, 2014, as European probe Philae is poised to land on a comet, the culmination of a historic quest to explore an enigma of the Solar System. After a trek of more than a decade, the mini lab called Philae separated on schedule from its mother ship Rosetta. Philae is to land on 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, a comet now more than 510 million kilometres (320 million miles) from Earth and racing towards the Sun. AFP PHOTO / DANIEL ROLAND (Photo credit should read DANIEL ROLAND/AFP/Getty Images)
Ukraine's Klim Churyumov, astronomer and co-discoverer of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, talks to media at the European Space Agency ESA in Darmstadt, Germany, Wednesday, Nov.12, 2014. Europe's Rosetta space probe was launched in 2004 with the aim of studying the comet and learning more about the origins of the universe. On Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2014 the Philae lander detached from Rosetta and started it's descent to the 4-kilometer-wide (2.5-mile-wide) 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)
DARMSTADT, GERMANY - NOVEMBER 12: The European Space Agency's Rosetta probe is set to make history by landing its robot craft Philae on a comet on November 12, 2014. The lander separated from Rosetta earlier on Wednesday and headed towards the surface of the comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko 67P which is moving at the speed of more than 80,000 miles (128,747 kilometers) per hour. The probe is named after the Rosetta stone, a stele of Egyptian origin and the lander is named after Philae, an island in Lake Nasser, Egypt. (Photo by European Space Agency/Pool/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
A picture shows a model of the European Space Agency's (ESA) robot craft Philae at the the Cite de l'espace (Space City) in Toulouse, southern France, on November 12, 2014, the day Philae began a 20-kilometre (12-mile) descent toward the Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet after being launched from the space probe Rosetta, following a ten year journey. Europe's Rosetta spacecraft made contact with its robot craft Philae soon after the lander embarked on November 12 on a solo, seven-hour descent to a comet, ground controllers said. Astrophysicists hope Philae will unlock knowledge about the origins of the Solar System and even life on Earth, which some believe may have started with comets 'seeding' the planet with life-giving carbon molecules and water. AFP PHOTO / REMY GABALDA (Photo credit should read REMY GABALDA/AFP/Getty Images)
Journalists film near a giant screen featuring Andrea Accomazzo (C), Rosetta flight operations director celebrating with European Space Agency (ESA) scientists after the announcement of the first-ever landing on a comet, done by European probe Philae, at theESA/ESOC in Darmstadt, western Germany, on November 12, 2014. The mini lab called Philae landed on 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet climaxing a historic quest to explore one of the enigmas of the Solar System. AFP PHOTO / DANIEL ROLAND (Photo credit should read DANIEL ROLAND/AFP/Getty Images)
Journalists film near a giant screen featuring Andrea Accomazzo (R), Rosetta flight operations director celebrating with European Space Agency (ESA) scientists after the announcement of the first-ever landing on a comet, done by European probe Philae, at the ESA/ESOC in Darmstadt, western Germany, on November 12, 2014. The mini lab called Philae landed on 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet climaxing a historic quest to explore one of the enigmas of the Solar System. AFP PHOTO / DANIEL ROLAND (Photo credit should read DANIEL ROLAND/AFP/Getty Images)
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DARMSTADT, Germany (AP) - 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.

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 toward the comet as both hurtled through space at 41,000 mph (66,000 kph).

The agency then received a signal at 1603 GMT (11:03 a.m. EST) from the 100-kilogram (220-pound) Philae lander after it touched down on the icy surface of the comet named 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Philae had drifted down to the comet and latched on using harpoons and ice screws.

"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 speeding comet is already a huge success. It marks the highlight of the decade-long Rosetta mission to study comets and learn more about the origins of these celestial bodies.

The head of the European Space Agency underlined Europe's pride in having achieved a unique first ahead of its U.S. counterpart NASA.

"We are the first to have done that, and that will stay forever," said ESA director-general Jean-Jacques Dordain.

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.

Rosetta and Philae now plan to accompany the comet as it races past the sun and becomes increasingly active in the rising temperatures. Using 21 different instruments, the twin spacecraft will collect data that scientists hope will help explain the origins and evolution of celestial bodies, and maybe even life on Earth.

"The science starts the minute we get down to the ground," McCaughrean said.

The landing Wednesday capped a 6.4 billion-kilometer (4 billion-mile) journey begun a decade ago.

Rosetta, which was launched in 2004, had to slingshot three times around Earth and once around Mars before it could work up enough speed to chase down the comet, which it reached in August. Rosetta and the comet have been traveling in tandem ever since.

The mission will also give researchers the opportunity to test the theory that comets brought organic matter and water to Earth billions of years ago, said Klim Churyumov, one of the two astronomers who discovered the comet in 1969.

Earlier Wednesday, ESA controllers clapped and embraced at mission control in Darmstadt as they got confirmation that the unmanned Rosetta had successfully released the 220-pound (100-kilogram), 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. It takes more than 28 minutes for a command to reach Rosetta.

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