The European Space Agency’s Rosetta probe ended its twelve-year mission today by crashing into its host comet, 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko (which, York students will be pleased to hear, looks a bit like a giant space duck if you squint right – apparently). Thankfully, the collision was deliberate.
When radio contact with the probe was lost abruptly shortly after noon today (UK time), mission controllers in the German city of Darmstadt responded with muted cheers and handshakes, marking the end of the mission that began in March 2004 and hit the news almost two years ago when the Philae lander was successfully landed on the comet’s surface.
I can announce the full success of this historic descent of Rosetta towards Comet 67P.
Farewell Rosetta; you’ve done the job. That was space science at its best.
Patrick Martin, ESA mission manager
The abrupt ending is not as wasteful as it may seem; with the comet now travelling away from the sun, contact would undoubtedly be lost soon anyway. The probe managed to capture many high-resolution images of the comet, among other measurements, during its descent, adding to the huge quantities of data already collected over the last two years, which are expected to take decades to analyse fully.
An alternative option may have been to put the probe into hibernation until comet 67P’s next visit, but there was no way to ensure that the probe would come back online properly. Project scientist Matt Taylor compared the scenario to a ’60s rock band:
We don’t want to have a rubbish comeback tour. We’d rather go out now in true rock ‘n’ roll style.
Matt Taylor, project scientist
By all accounts, the Rosetta mission was a resounding success, leading directly to a number of firsts in space exploration, gathering huge quantities of data that will boost our understanding of the solar system’s estimated one trillion comets, and raising the public profile of the ESA and space science in general. Now Rosetta has met her end, let’s look forward to seeing what they come up with next. It’s bound to be even more ground-breaking.