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Scientists Celebrate Comet Landing Decades in the Making

Image: ESA Reaction to Philae Landing

Thomas Reiter, Head of ESOC and ESA Director of Human Spaceflight and Operations, Jean-Jaques Dordain (Right) Director General of ESA and German Aerospace Center (DLR) Chairman Johann-Dietrich Woerner (Second Right) react after the successful landing of the Philae lander on comet 67P/ Churyumov-Gerasimenko, at the European Space Agency's (ESA) headquarters in Darmstadt on Nov. 12. RALPH ORLOWSKI / Reuters

DARMSTADT, Germany — When the news of a successful landing arrived in the control and briefing rooms at the European Space Agency on Wednesday, applause roared through the building and bottles of champagne were popped. The scientists finally had confirmation that the Philea lander had made it safely to the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, a historic first two decades in the making.

The minutes before the landing were the most tense of the day. Everyone in the room knew that the landing had occurred way out there in space, but had to wait 28 minutes as the signals made the long trip back to Earth.

One Happy Scientist: Pictures of the Comet Lander 0:58

When the news finally arrived, Jim Green, director of planetary science at NASA, had tears in his eyes.

"It's just a huge step for the world, for mankind," he said. "It's just unbelievable. I'm happy for them, I'm happy for NASA, I'm happy for the science that we're going to do."

"How exciting, how unbelievable," he said. "It's the start of something important. The solar system is now mankind's."

Before the good news, ESA officials had been cautious, calling the landing maneuver the riskiest stage of the Rosetta mission.

But an hour before the landing, the updates from the ESA control room were upbeat.

"We're getting fantastic data from instruments on board," said Stephan Ulamec, Philea lander manager.

Flight director Andrea Accomazzo said, "We need to be lucky to get good landing conditions."

Apparently they did get lucky, after decades of preparation.