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Rosetta Probe Closes In to Drop Philae Lander on Comet

BERLIN — The European Space Agency is making final preparations to land the first spacecraft on a comet next week, and scientists are hoping that technology designed a quarter-century ago will perform as planned. Europe's Rosetta space probe was launched in 2004 to study Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and learn more about the origins of the universe. After getting Rosetta to rendezvous with the comet in August, scientists intend to release a landing craft called Philae onto its icy surface. The drop is scheduled for 3:35 a.m. ET Wednesday.

Since signals take 28 minutes to travel the 500 million kilometers (311 million miles) from Earth to Rosetta, scientists have programmed the probe to perform the separation sequence autonomously. They will rely on what, in digital terms, is ancient technology. "You're looking at technology, computing-wise, of the end of the 1980s," mission manager Fred Jansen said Friday. Confirmation that the lander hit the comet's surface should reach Earth at 11:03 a.m. ET. "There is no doubt that we'll hit the comet," said spacecraft operations manager Andrea Accomazzo. "Whether we hit it safely is another matter."

Extraterrestrial Milestone: Rosetta Spacecraft to Land on Comet 0:29

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— The Associated Press