updated 2/26/2004 11:51:04 AM ET 2004-02-26T16:51:04

European scientists on Thursday delayed the launch of a spacecraft that will make an unprecedented attempt to land on a comet, citing weather conditions at the launch site in French Guiana.

The European Space Agency’s 3-ton Rosetta probe was due to blast off on an Ariane 5 rocket from Kourou at 2:36 a.m. EST Thursday on its 10-year journey to a planned rendezvous with an ice-caked comet called 67P/Churymov-Gerasimenko.

But mission controllers said just before the scheduled time that they were putting off the launch by 24 hours until Friday.

“Due to high wind, we are unable to proceed with the launch today,” said the agency’s director of launches, Jean-Yves Le Gall. Bernhard von Weyhe, a spokesman for mission control in Darmstadt, near Frankfurt, specified the delay was caused by high wind in the upper atmosphere.

Cosmic leftovers
Previously, spacecraft have only made brief fly-bys of comets to take pictures, or landed on asteroids. Comets formed at the same time as the solar system — 4.6 billion years ago — and are believed to hold deep-frozen matter left over from the birth of the sun and planets.

Image: Rosetta probe
ESA
In this artist's conception, the Rosetta probe sends a lander toward Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.
Since comets pelted the earth in the billion years after the solar system formed, scientists theorize they may also have brought some of the building blocks for life, like water and organic materials.

“Rosetta will decipher how the Earth was formed and why it is the way it is now,” Rita Schulz, the deputy project scientist for Rosetta, told The Associated Press. “Because comets are so far away from the sun, they still contain material from 4.6 billion years ago.”

Originally scheduled to launch in January 2003, the $1.25 billion mission already was delayed after problems with the rocket forced scientists to retarget the craft, originally due to be sent to a comet called Wirtanen. Officials stressed Thursday that there were no technical problems this time.

Two excursions
The mission will send Rosetta on two excursions into the solar system’s main asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars. The craft will take a roundabout route, swinging through the gravitational fields of Earth and Mars during several fly-bys, picking up speed before heading into deep space.

In May 2014, the craft is scheduled to rendezvous with 67P/Churymov-Gerasimenko and go into orbit. Six months later, the probe will send a box-shaped lander onto the comet’s surface as it speeds through the solar system at 83,600 mph (133,750 kilometers per hour).

Named for the Rosetta Stone tablet that helped historians decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics, the project is also groundbreaking in that it relies on solar panels for power, in contrast to other, nuclear-powered deep-space missions.

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