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Separation complete for comet landing device

Equipment on board the Philae lander was designed at the Open University in Milton Keynes Photo: ESA

Scientists in our region have begun a final day of waiting as a 10 year mission to land on a comet comes to an end. It is hoped the audacious project could help unlock the secrets of how life on earth began.

At about 9am this morning, the first stage of the final day was successfully completed as the Philae lander separated from Rosetta and began a 7 hour drift down to the comet's surface. You can watch developments live from the European Space Agency here.

The Rosetta spacecraft was built at Airbus Defence and Space in Stevenage. If lifted off in 2004 and since then it has been shooting silently through space.

The chosen comet is about two and a half miles wide, and is called 67P - 'Churyumov-Gerasimenko'. Landing could be difficult as the comet only has a small amount of gravity, and the exact makeup of its surface is not yet known.

Photo of the comet taken from the Rosetta spacecraft Credit: ESA

Likened to a 'rubber duck', because of its shape, the comet is made of rock, dust and ice and is travelling at approximately 84,000 miles an hour

The comet has been likened to a rubber duck, because of its shape Credit: ESA

To catch the comet the Rosetta spacecraft had to slingshot around the earth and Mars, stealing some of their speed in the process. Both planets are moving a tiny bit slower as a result.

It carried a lander, called Philae, which has equipment on board designed at the Open University in Milton Keynes. It is small, but packed with instruments including a camera, a drill and a radar to investigate the comet's interior.

At about 9am this morning the lander successfully left Rosetta, and is now drifting towards the comet's surface. On landing it plans to harpoon itself in place, and to immediately start taking samples. Confirmation of whether the landing has been successful is expected at 4pm GMT.

It is hoped that the tiny probe will help answer enormous questions, like whether comets brought water to the earth when it formed billions of years ago. For some of those involved it has been a lifetime of work which, if successful could bring a whole new world of scientific possibility.

"What we're really interested is looking back in time at comets as an example of things that would have been brought to the earth, and ultimately that could be where the earth's water came from and when the organic compounds came from that ultimately got together to form life."

– Ian Wright. Professor of Planetary Sciences, The Open University

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