BERLIN — The European Space Agency is making final preparations to land the first unmanned 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 with the aim of studying comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and learning more about the origins of the universe.
After successfully getting Rosetta to rendezvous with the comet in August, scientists intend to release a small landing craft called Philae onto its icy surface.
The drop — scheduled for 0835 GMT (3:35 a.m. EST) Wednesday — requires a series of complex orbital maneuvers over the coming days. Since signals take over 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 itself when the moment is right.
They will rely on what, in digital terms, is ancient technology.
"The design and building started some 20 years ago," mission manager Fred Jansen told reporters Friday. "Effectively you're looking at technology, computing-wise, of the end of the 1980s."
The 100-kilogram (220-pound) lander should touch down on the surface of the comet about seven hours later, with confirmation reaching Earth at about 1603 GMT (11:03 a.m. EST).
"There is no doubt that we'll hit the comet," said spacecraft operations manager Andrea Accomazzo. "Whether we hit it safely is another matter."
The European Space Agency, which relies for funding on its member states, has sought to drum up public interest in the mission with a series of high-profile campaigns over the past year. These include an online vote on what to name the landing site — Agilkia, after an island on the Nile River, was chosen — and the release of a sci-fi short film called "Ambition" starring "Game of Thrones" actor Aidan Gillen.
The landing event will be streamed on the space agency's website.
Rosetta website: http://www.esa.int/rosetta
"Ambition" movie: http://www.esa.int