Twelve years ago, the European Space Agency launched one of its most monumental missions to date: Rosetta. Alongside her lander Philae, Rosetta was deployed with the goal of unpicking the night-shrouded mysteries surrounding comet topography, structure and behaviour.
However, on the 30th September, the comet came to a spectacular finish as it crash landed on the comt Churyumov-Gerasimenko.
Rosetta, never designed to land, was likely badly damamged on impact, despite coming in at a speed of just one metre per second. Its last signal, transmitted at the moment of landing, reached Earth at 12:19 BST. Rosetta will never be heard from again.
The mission team hugged and cried as Rosetta’s final moments were confirmed. Mission manager, Patrick Martin said, “I can announce full success of this historic descent towards 67P. Farewell Rosetta, you’ve done the job. That was space science at its best”.
“It was a bittersweet feeling,” said Matt Taylor, a project scientist with the European Space Agency. He continued, “We know that we’ve achieved something fantastic. But you’ve also lost something. This project, you were on it 24/7, there was always something going on, and now that’s gone.
“It’s like losing a member of the family.”
Taylor worked as a key intermediary between the missions engineers and scientists. He said, “I have to try and make all of the scientists behave sensibly and walk in one direction which is not really an easy task.
“It’s like herding cats.”
The probe began her investigation in the August of 2014, after a long 31 months of deep-space travel and hibernation, as well as a further seven months of travel to reach her target of Comet 67P.
However, after surviving in the desolate and destructive comet environment for 786 days, in addition to an 8 billion kilometre journey and three Earth flybys, the ESA took the solemn decision to permanently deactivate the probe. The reason behind this is that Comet 67P, otherwise known as Churyumov-Gerasimenko, has a current trajectory which will take it past the orbit of Jupiter; a distance too far from the Sun for Rosetta’s solar panels to function properly and generate enough electricity to power the probe.
At 21:50 BST, on the 29th September 2016, Rosetta received her final command from the ESA Control Centre in Darmstadt, Germany, and began her descent to the comet surface, impacting the surface on the following day.
The Rosetta mission has been “on the drawing board even before ESA’s first deep-space mission”, says Johann-Dietrich Worner (ESA’s General Director), marking a culmination of decades of work by many scientists, engineers and technicians across Europe.
The probe yielded many surprising and pivotal revelations, such as the discovery of molecular oxygen, the detection of water which is a different flavour than that found in Earth’s oceans, and the unearthing of traces of a key component in DNA. Such discoveries, alongside the technological success of Rosetta, has led Worner, to describe the mission as “one that has surpassed all our dreams and expectations, and one that continues ESA’s legacy of ‘firsts’ at comets”.
This mission certainly serves as an example to us all of the great lengths of exploration and endeavour that the ESA, and humanity as a whole, is capable of achieving.