Looking Up – Bob Eklund

comet1-large_transvdtkv7s_phojygwvcedxn6tag74rcoeav5wpxxfjdwkRosetta’s mission is over. After the last signal on Sept. 30, 2016, the spacecraft was crash-landed on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, taking measurements and sending them to Earth right until the very end.

The final descent image of the comet was taken from the European Space Agency (ESA) Rosetta spacecraft moments before its controlled impact into the comet’s surface. Confirmation of the end of the mission arrived at ESA’s European Space Operations Center in Darmstadt, Germany, at 4:19 a.m. PDT (7:19 a.m. EDT / 1:19 p.m. CEST) with the loss of signal upon impact.

The final descent gave Rosetta the opportunity to study the comet’s gas, dust and plasma environment very close to its surface, as well as taking very high-resolution images.

The final image was taken from an altitude of 167 feet above the comet’s surface by the spacecraft’s OSIRIS wide-angle camera. The image scale is about two-tenths of an inch (5 millimeters) per pixel. The image measures about 9 feet across.

The decision to end the mission on the surface is a result of Rosetta and the comet heading out beyond the orbit of Jupiter again. Farther from the Sun than Rosetta had ever journeyed before, there would be little power available to operate the craft. Mission operators were also faced with an imminent month-long period when the Sun is close to the line-of-sight between Earth and Rosetta, meaning communications with the craft would have become increasingly more difficult.

The European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission was launched in 2004 and arrived at comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on Aug. 6, 2014. It is the first mission in history to rendezvous with a comet and escort it as it orbits the Sun. On Nov. 4, 2014, a small lander name Philae, which had been deployed from the Rosetta mothership, touched down on the comet and bounced several times before finally alighting on the surface. Philae obtained the first images taken from a comet’s surface and sent back valuable scientific data for several days.

The spectacular mission has now come to an end, with Rosetta undergoing a controlled crash on “its” comet. As the comet moves away from the Sun, the energy available to the solar-powered spacecraft was decreasing. Consequently, ESA decided to crash-land the spacecraft on the comet. Rosetta therefore followed its landing probe “Philae” and now still circles the Sun in its “final resting place.”

Rosetta’s mission took twelve years including notable firsts like the first orbit of a comet and, for the first time, placing a lander on a comet surface. The Rosetta spacecraft has already made history.

Comets are time capsules containing primitive material left over from the epoch when the Sun and its planets formed. Rosetta is the first spacecraft to witness at close proximity how a comet changes as it is subjected to the increasing intensity of the Sun’s radiation. Observations will help scientists learn more about the origin and evolution of our solar system and the role comets may have played in the formation of planets.


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