DARMSTADT, Germany — Turning what seemed like a science fiction tale into reality, an unmanned probe swung alongside a comet on Wednesday after a 4-billion mile (6.4-billion kilometer) chase through outer space over the course of a decade.
Europe's Rosetta probe will orbit and study the giant ball of dust and ice as it hurtles toward the sun and, if all goes according to plan, drop a lander onto the comet in the coming months.
Rosetta turned up as planned for its "rendezvous" with comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko somewhere between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.
The incredible trip, launched on March 2, 2004, marks a milestone in mankind's effort to understand the mysterious shooting stars that periodically flash past Earth, and which have often been viewed with fear and trepidation.
While the moon, Mars and even asteroids have been visited, no spacecraft has yet gotten so close to a comet. Having achieved this feat, Rosetta will go one step further and drop a lander on 67P's icy surface — a maneuver planned for November.
"You can compare what we've done so far to finding a speck of dust in a big city," said Gerhard Schwehm, who was lead scientist on the Rosetta mission until his recent retirement.
That's probably an understatement.
To catch their quarry, scientists at the European Space Agency had to overcome a series of hurdles that included a last-minute change of destination — after a carrier rocket failure delayed launch — and a tense hibernation period of 31 months during which the probe was out of contact with ground stations.
Before Rosetta swung alongside 67P with a final thrust Wednesday, the spacecraft also had to accelerate to 55,000 kph (34,000 mph) — a speed that required three loops around Earth and one around Mars.
Underlining the singular achievement, ESA's director-general Jean-Jacques Dordain told scientists and spectators at the mission control center in Darmstadt, Germany: "This is your only chance to have a rendezvous with a comet."