Not only did Rosetta take its first peek at its destination comet, but its passenger Philae is awake and functional. The Philae lander scheduled to actually hop down to the comet in November 2014, anchor on, and perform a variety of tests directly on the comet's surface.
The connection between Rosetta and Philae goes back into the history of interpreting hieroglyphics. The Rosetta Stone with its enigmatic inscriptions was discovered in 1799, and thwarted all attempts at translation until inscriptions from an obelisk at the Temple of Philae was added to the puzzle. Those inscriptions led to Jean François Champollion finally unlocking the translation of the Rosetta Stone, and opened up a whole new realm of archeology.
The student who figured out that poetic connection between Rosetta and Philae submitted it to an European-Union wide naming contest. She's now a Space Engineering student scheduled to graduate in November 2014, the same time Philae has her close encounter with a comet.
While Rosetta will be the first spacecraft to enter orbit around a comet, Philae will get up-close and personal by landing on the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in November of this year. Alas, that name has no encoded historical meaning: like most comets, 67P bares the names of its discovers.
Harking back to the first moon landings and fears that astronauts would sink into endless moon dust, we don't know what conditions will greet Philae. Will the comet have a hard, jagged icy crust? Or fine powdery dust? The comet will be much closer to the sun by then, the heat supplementing a glowing coma with a photogenic but inconvenient tail.
A terrestrial double of Philae has been running through endless tests on Earth while the cosmic Philae napped. The doppelgänger has been crashed onto a surface at the test center at anything up to 1.1 meters a second at all angles. It's been landing on tubs of sand, solid surfaces, and even a steel plate coated in oil to make sure it can handle a painfully low-friction landing. Once the deceptively-dainty lander touches down, screws in its feet dig into the surface to hold on tight and a pair of harpoons fire out to anchor Philae to the comet.
Whatever Philae encounters, it will have to tackle solo. The comet will be 30 light-minutes from Earth, so landing will need to take place automatically. This means even more rough mornings for Philae's doppelgänger, as Koen Guerts, the technical project leader, explains,"We can simulate everything that could happen to the flight model, including things we would rather not experience." So, the model will keep getting crashed, banged, and artificially crippled to figure out how best to get the real lander safely anchored to the comet in a few months. In the meantime, Philae can wake up slowly, enjoy new software upgrades, and relax into the ride as Rosetta carries them both onwards.
In what is becoming classic space-explorer fashion, the lander has its own Twitter account, and is quite chatty about her current status. During the slow wake-up, Philae revelled in a manner familiar to anyone who has indulged in a lazy morning in bed: