The European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft will finally complete its 10-year journey to intercept the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko tomorrow. Now comes the hard part.
The Rosetta spacecraft is currently travelling at about 58,000km/h — that's roughly mach 47. Comet 67P, meanwhile, is moving through space at 55,000km/h. In order for the Rosetta to intercept and enter orbit around the comet, it's going to have to match the comet's speed within a range of just 1.6km/h. So, to slow itself down sufficiently, the Rosetta performed a series of thruster burns in June and July to cut 2400km/h off its trajectory, while another pair of "insertion burns" performed yesterday and today should put the spacecraft in optimal position to snag the passing space rock.
Once that happens, the Rosetta will spend 18 months examining the comet before deploying a landing craft known as the Philae. This would mark the first time in recorded history that human technology has not only orbited a comet but landed and sampled it as well. [Space]