WASHINGTON (CBS TAMPA/AP) — Following the first successful touchdown on a comet by the European Space Agency’s Philae probe, a NASA director expressed his own excitement by declaring it a big step toward “moving off this planet” and “taking” the entire solar system.

The U.S. space agency’s planetary science head, Jim Green, said the successful touchdown on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on Wednesday is evidence that the solar system is now in the grasp of wider human exploration, CNET reports. NASA has plans to send humans to Mars in the 2030s, although Elon Musk and Mars One hope to achieve that years earlier.

“How audacious! How exciting!” Green shouted. “The solar system is mankind’s — this mission is the first step to take it. It’s ours… It’s these steps that will lead us beyond this planet and on to Mars and out into the solar system.”

“I truly believe that a single planet species will not survive long. It’s our destiny to move off this planet.”

NASA released a statement on Wednesday declaring the successful Rosetta comet landing “a great day for space exploration.”

“We congratulate ESA on their successful landing on a comet today. This achievement represents a breakthrough moment in the exploration of our solar system and a milestone for international cooperation, reads the statement from John Grunsfeld.

“We are proud to be a part of this historic day and look forward to receiving valuable data from the three NASA instruments on board Rosetta that will map the comet’s nucleus and examine it for signs of water.”

“The data collected by Rosetta will provide the scientific community, and the world, with a treasure-trove of data. Small bodies in our solar system like comets and asteroids help us understand how the solar system formed and provide opportunities to advance exploration. We look forward to building on Rosetta’s success exploring our solar system through our studies of near earth asteroids and NASA’s upcoming asteroid sample return mission OSIRIS-REx. It’s a great day for space exploration.”

The landing on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko required immense precision, as even the slightest error could have thrown the spacecraft far off course and imperiled the mission. In the end, the touchdown of the Philae lander appeared to be almost perfectly on target, said Paolo Ferri, head of mission operations for the European Space Agency.

“Everyone cried,” he told reporters at mission control in Darmstadt, Germany.

Scientists have likened the trillion or so comets in our solar system to time capsules that are virtually unchanged since the earliest moments of the universe.

“By studying one in enormous detail, we can hope to unlock the puzzle of all of the others,” said Mark McCaughrean, a senior scientific adviser to the mission.

The mission will also give researchers the opportunity to test the theory that comets brought organic matter and water to Earth billions of years ago, said Klim Churyumov, one of the two astronomers who discovered the comet in 1969.

Scientists at the agency first had to sweat through a tense seven-hour countdown that began when Philae dropped from the agency’s Rosetta space probe as both it and the comet hurtled through space at 41,000 mph (66,000 kph).

During the lander’s descent, scientists were powerless to do anything but watch, because its vast distance from Earth — 500 million kilometers (311 million miles) — made it impossible to send instructions in real time.

Finally, at 1603 GMT (11:03 a.m. EST), the agency received a signal that the washing machine-sized lander had touched down on the comet’s icy surface.

Benjamin Fearnow

(TM and © Copyright 2014 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2014 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)


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