Last week saw a dramatic end to one of the most influential space missions in recent decades. At 11:19am GMT on September 30th the Rosetta spacecraft crash landed on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko to the cheers and jeers of scientists and engineers from the European Space Agency (ESA) and German Aerospace Center (DLR).
Back in early March 2004 spacecraft Rosetta, and assistant lander Philae, launched from the Guiana Space Centre in South America with a mission to map the surface and composition of Comet 67P.
After over ten years of transit, Rosetta finally rendezvoused with the comet in August 2014 having passed a number of asteroids and the planet Mars. Throughout the 720 million kilometre journey the spacecraft’s array of instruments were cataloguing data as well as gathering a library of 116,000 images.
Probe lander Philae created history when it detached from its carrier on November 12th 2014 and touched down after bouncing twice on the comet’s surface. Once located relatively unscathed at the bottom of a crater wall, Philae could begin to send vital data back to Earth via Rosetta. The probe pieced together the molecular structures of the comet’s atmosphere and soil for a further three days until its battery was depleted.
Rosetta continued its work after the loss of Philae and the spacecraft was able to relay important evidence for another 23 months. Evidence such as the signature of water vapour, making up some of the comet’s structure, was found to be vastly different to that on Earth. Bringing scientists to the conclusion that the globe’s oceans were not delivered via these types of objects.
After 12 years and 7 billion kilometres travelled it was time for Rosetta’s final farewell. Last Friday (September 30th) ground crew at DLR’s facility in Darmstadt, Germany deliberately drove the vehicle in to the comet it had been so closely monitoring. Emotions were running high as the team awaited imagery and information of the declination.
Even now that ESA and DLR scientists have called an end to Rosetta’s career, the mission directors are saying there is so much more to come.
“We have only scratched the surface of the science, there is decades worth of data here.”
– Matt Taylor, Rosetta Project Scientist
A selection of spectacular images captured by Rosetta can be found on the ESA website.