Goodbye Rosetta!

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Rosetta flying over a comet. Frame from the movie “Chasing A Comet – The Rosetta Mission”.

After a 12-year-long mission the ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft has successfully crash-landed onto comet 67P/C-G, ending its heroic journey.

For 12 years, 6 months and 28 days the European Space Agency’s Rosetta has been in space, orbiting a comet named 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. It has been gathering data in the form of pictures, dust and gas samples, and studying the comet’s plasma environment, already enabling leaps forward in our understanding of the beginning of life on Earth.

Just last week, on Friday, the spacecraft made its final 19-kilometre descent, crash-landing onto the surface of the comet. A 208-second burn by Rosetta’s rocket thrusters set the probe on course for a point on the dual-lobed comet’s smaller chunk. This gave Rosetta the opportunity to study the comet very close to its surface and gain any final information.

A photograph of the comet 67P/C-G taken by Rosetta.

The spacecraft travelled a total of 7.9 billion kilometres, eventually reaching the orbit of Jupiter. The comet is on the outbound leg of its nearly six-and-a-half-year orbit around the sun, heading for a point known as aphelion beyond the orbit of Jupiter. At those distances, Rosetta’s solar panels would no longer produce enough electricity to keep the spacecraft powered, so a decision was made to use the remaining energy to redirect the probe towards the comet so it could use its final days to obtain its clearest images yet.

The comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko was discovered in 1969 by a pair of Ukrainian scientists. It measures 4.1 kilometres in diameter along its longest axis, and researchers believe Jupiter’s gravity threw the comet closer to the sun in 1840, where it receives enough solar heating to vaporise ice and create a tail.

Rosetta’s mission started 12 years ago in 2004. It arrived at the comet on 6 August 2014, and on 4 November 2014 a smaller probe named Philae, deployed from the Rosetta mothership, settled down on the comet after bouncing several times before stopping. Philae was operational for a number of days and sent back invaluable data from the comet.

Rosetta then spent its final years chasing the comet and on 30 September, after a hugely successful mission, it made its last controlled descent.

Goodbye Rosetta!