After 12 years chasing a comet across more 6 billion km of space, European scientists will end the historic Rosetta mission by crash landing the spacecraft on the surface of the dusty, icy body at the end of the month.
Data collected by Rosetta, which has captured the public’s imagination thanks in part to the European Space Agency’s cartoon depictions of it and lander Philae, is helping scientists better understand how the Earth and other planets formed.
The spacecraft has managed several historic firsts, including the first time a spacecraft has orbited a comet rather than just whizzing past to snap some fly-by pictures, and the first time a probe has landed on a comet’s surface.
It was also the first mission to venture beyond the main asteroid belt relying solely on solar cells for power.
After more than two years of circling comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, collecting a treasure trove of data that will keep scientists busy for years to come, the comet’s distance from the sun is nearing the point where solar power becomes too weak to operate the spacecraft and download data from its computers.
In the final hours of its controlled descent on Sept. 30, Rosetta will be able to take close-up pictures of the comet and collect data on gases closer to the surface before joining Philae and shutting down forever.
“We haven’t been in those last two kilometers (to the surface) with Rosetta and we believe it’s fundamental in understanding how gases and dust get from the surface out to the outer atmosphere,” Matt Taylor, ESA’s Rosetta project scientist, told Reuters ahead of Rosetta’s end-of-mission event at ESA’s Space Operations Center in Darmstadt, Germany.