Mission ends: Rosetta orbiter crashes into Comet 67P

Having reached the end of its functional lifespan, the Rosetta probe is set to make an impact one last time on Friday morning as it prepares to crash into the very comet which it has been studying for the past two-plus years, according to BBC News and New York Times reports.

Rosetta, which was built by the European Space Agency (ESA), launched on March 2, 2004. The probe and its lander module, Philae, then spent the next 12 years travelling towards their ultimate destination, Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (67P). They arrived on August 6, 2014, and in November of that year, Philae became the first module to successfully land on a comet.

The orbiter had lost contact with its lander for much of the mission, but was able to collect a vast array of scientific data on its own, providing new insights into the structure and chemistry of this comet. Since comets are believed to be made from materials left behind after the formation of the Solar System, the data could reveal what the Universe was like some 4.5 billion years ago.

On Friday morning, however, Rosetta’s mission will come to an end, as the orbiter is expected to make a hard landing on the surface of the comet’s head near a location known as Deir el-Medina. While the crash is not expected to occur at high-speed (BBC News said that the estimated impact will come at close to walking speed), it is nonetheless likely to destroy the probe.

Historic mission coming to an end in true ‘rock’n’roll’ style

Over the past few days, ESA controllers have adjusted Rosetta’s path to line it up for the probe’s final journey, and on Thursday, they officially placed it on a collision course. Its instruments will continue to function during its decent, but pre-loaded software will switch them off on impact.

According to the Times, impact was expected to occur at 6:40am Eastern Time, plus or minus 20 minutes. Once it lands on the comet, it will send out a radio signal confirming its fate, which was expected to arrive on Earth about 40 minutes later, or at approximately 7:20am Eastern Time.

An artist's impression of Rosetta just before it impacts the comet. (Credit: ESA/ATG medial)

An artist’s impression of Rosetta just before it impacts the comet. (Credit: ESA/ATG medial)

In addition to the thrilling and historic Philae landing, the Rosetta mission led to the discovery of 16 organic compounds on 67P, including four that CNN said had never been detected on a comet before. It also found that the water contained in the comet’s ice is not the same as the H2O found in Earth’s oceans, and that its surface is relatively dry and highly porous, CBS News added.

Now, however, 67P is moving away from the sun. The comet is already 573 million kilometers away, meaning that there is little sunlight for the spacecraft’s solar arrays to convert into energy. Furthermore, transmission speeds have slowed to 40kbps, equal to dial-up internet speeds, BBC News noted. ESA officials briefly considered placing Rosetta into hibernation until 67P returned to the sun, but ultimately decided to bring the mission to a spectacular end.

“We’ve taken the world on a thrilling scientific journey to the heart of a comet,” ESA senior science adviser Mark McCaughrean told BBC News, “and, in turn, we’ve seen the world take Rosetta and Philae’s amazing adventure into their hearts.” His colleague Matt Taylor added, “It’s like one of those 60s rock bands; we don’t want to have a rubbish comeback tour. We’d rather go out now in true rock’n’roll style.”


Image credit: ESA/Rosetta/NavCam