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Space + FlightSpace & Flight

Rosetta Space Probe Plunges to Its Death on Comet 67P

ByAllison EckNOVA NextNOVA Next

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The European Space Agency’s Rosetta probe died today at one dozen years old.

In 2004, the ESA launched Rosetta on a mission to the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Ten years and 4.9 billion miles later, Rosetta dispatched its tiny lander Philae to conduct experiments on the comet’s surface.

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While Philae itself had a relatively short operational life, Rosetta continued to take pictures and collect data from above. But comet 67P is rocketing away from the sun, which means that Rosetta had limited solar energy available to power its systems. Rather than putting it into hibernation, the ESA decided to terminate the probe’s life.

The Rosetta team was determined to retrieve as much information as possible from the probe before it crashed into the icy body, and it took its last picture on the final descent—from just 65 feet above the surface.

An artist’s impression of the Rosetta orbiter

Here’s Jonathan Amos, reporting for BBC News:

Throughout Friday morning, the instrument teams had followed every twist and turn as the probe aimed for a touchdown spot on the head of the 4km-wide, duck-shaped comet.

The researchers had wanted the descending probe to get a look inside one of the many pits that pockmark the surface.

These sinkholes are often the places where 67P ejects gas and dust into space. But they also afford an opportunity to look at the object’s interior, to see the lumpy ice blocks that may have come together to build the comet billions of years ago.

Some of the images that came back were acquired just seconds before the collision. These pictures will have resolutions that can be measured in millimetres. “They’re super-duper,” enthused Holger Sierks, the head of the Osiris camera team. “I’ve got goosebumbs just thinking about all this,” he told BBC News.

Although Rosetta is no longer active, it’ll live on in the data that it accrued—about the comet’s structure, chemistry, and so on—over the course of its journey in space. There are tens of thousands of observations left to log and analyze, so it’ll be a while before the team has exhausted Rosetta of its worth. Plus, if this data helps scientists find out more about the origins of life on Earth and about our solar system, then Rosetta’s legacy will be intimately tied to that of humanity itself.

Image credit: European Space Agency