Today at about 11:40 am (BST) the Rosetta spacecraft collided with the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko after a mission time of nearly 13 years.
What was the Rosetta Mission?
Launched on March 2, 2004, it took the spacecraft 10 years to cover the nearly 500 million miles from Earth. The European Space Agency had a few goals in mind when they created this mission:
- Take the first pictures from a comet’s surface
- Use a drill to take surface and sub-surface samples
- Be the first spacecraft sent to a comet that included both an orbiter and a lander
The overall goal was simple: perform the most detailed analysis of a comet to date.
As aforementioned, the ship was to contain both an orbiter and a lander. The orbiter is named Rosetta, and the lander Philae. Philae was launched from Rosetta in November of 2014. Unfortunately, the probe’s harpoon system, which was design to keep it secured safely to the surface, did not activate. This caused the probe to bounce on the surface three times, culminating in a final resting location that had much less sun exposure than was originally desired. Because of the significantly reduced power generated from the solar panels, the probe’s batteries only lasted three days. Since then, it has been “hibernating” and has only woke up twice when the comet got close to the sun.
Why does it have to crash into the comet?
The Rosetta spacecraft has travelled further from the Sun than any other man-made probe. Due to this, the solar energy being produced by the arrays onboard is not enough to keep the orbiter functional for much longer. The Rosetta team thus had to make the decision to crash-land the orbiter next to the landing probe.
Rosetta Mission Timeline
- March 2, 2004 Launch
- March 4, 2005 1st Earth Gravity Assist*
- February 25, 2007 Mars Gravity Assist
- November 13, 2007 2nd Earth Gravity Assist
- September 5, 2008 Encounter with asteroid Steins*
- November 13, 2009 3rd Earth Gravity Assist
- July 10, 2010 Encounter with asteroid Lutetia
- June 8, 2011 Rosetta enters hibernation to save energy
- January 19, 2014 Rosetta wakes from hibernation
- March 20, 2014 Rosetta gets first distant glimpse of comet
- August 6, 2014 Arrival at comet 67P
- November 12, 2014 Philae lands on the surface, making history
- September 30, 2016 Mission conclusion with crash-landing
*A gravity assist is a maneuver to help accelerate the craft to speeds that can not yet be achieved by rockets alone
*Difference between asteroid and a comet: asteroids are made of metals and rocky materials while comets are made of mostly ice and dust
What discoveries did Rosetta and Philae make?
Comet’s Water Cycle: Using visible, infrared and thermal imaging, scientists discovered a region where ice appears and disappears in sync with the rotation of the comet.
How the comet got its’ shape: Using high-resolution images taken from the surface, scientists were able to determine that the comet was actually given its’ duck-like shape from the collision of two smaller comets.
First detection of molecular Oxygen on a comet: The gaseous version of Oxygen is very hard to find in the Universe because of its’ high reactivity.
Discovery of crucial molecules of life: Glycine, a common amino acid found in proteins, and phosphorous, found in DNA, were both discovered by the craft’s probing.