November 6, 2014

The Space Community has had things rough of late. The explosion of an unmanned Antares rocket and the fatal crash of Richard Branson’s SpaceShipTwo serve as painful reminders of what can go wrong when you take on the cosmos.

But things can go quietly, elegantly right too. On Nov. 12, the European Space Agency plans to land a research vessel on a comet in a first-of-its-kind maneuver. The mission, 10 years in the making, has already provided unprecedented insights into the chemistry of these cosmic iceballs. The lander could offer clues to the origins of the solar system.

Comets are thought of as the bones of the ancient solar system, with their makeup preserved in a deep freeze because they spend so much time far from the sun. Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko, or 67P, comes from the Kuiper Belt, a vast band of icy objects beyond the orbit of Neptune.

The ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft, which is flying alongside 67P, has already taken several readings of its gases, but the fun will start when the ship ejects the lander, called Philae, which will fall gently to the comet because of its light gravity. Once on the surface, Philae will take measurements that could reveal the conditions that prevailed in the universe not long after the Big Bang.

Philae will operate at full capacity for just a few days. But for the next year, Rosetta will continue its tandem flight with 67P, radioing back what it can before the tiny world returns to the distant solar system.

This appears in the November 17, 2014 issue of TIME.

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