Rosetta space probe flies into a comet, destroying itself, as craft finishes historic mission

The probe – along with the Philae lander that dropped on to Comet 67P – might obtain some of its most important information ever in its final hours

Andrew Griffin
Thursday 29 September 2016 10:30
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The life and death of the £1bn Rosetta comet probe

The Rosetta spacecraft has crashed into a comet, bringing to an end one of the most important space missions in recent history.

Final preparations were made to send the craft into the comet that it has spent months circling, destroying the probe and ending operations on the £1bn mission.

The quest ended at around midday UK time, when the Rosetta craft hit the comet’s surface and Earth lost contact with it. Before then, scientists hoped to get their last pieces of information – some of which might be the most important ever spotted, since Rosetta will be able to get so close to the surface.

European Space Agency's (ESA) staff Mattial Malmer poses with a comet 67P/ Churyumov-Gerasimenko shape pillow at the European Space Agency's (ESA) headquarters in Darmstadt, as the the Rosetta spacecraft is nearing the end of its historic, 12-year comet chase

Scientists working on the mission have spent recent days preparing to say goodbye to the craft, which they have been designing and steering through the solar system for years.

Tributes included a special box of tissues – ready for those scientists moved to tears by the poignant final stage of the mission – shaped like Rosetta itself.

Final commands were sent to the Rosetta craft, ordering it to begin a descent that saw it land on the rock’s surface. It is now destroyed and will lie on the comet’s surface, alongside the Philae lander, for millions of years as it flies around the sun.

Rosetta started its “collision manoeuvre” at 9.50pm UK time on Thursday. From that point, its course was set – there was no turning back for Rosetta on its way down to the rock’s surface.

The spacecraft was due to fly towards the comet and hit the ground at 11.40am UK time on Friday. But it took around 40 minutes for confirmation of that, because of the time it takes for the radio signals to get back to Earth.

The worry for those behind the mission was that there would not be enough time for all of the useful information to be communicated back to Earth before the craft was destroyed.

Gerhard Schwehm (2ndR) embraces Berndt Feuerbacher at the European Space Agency's (ESA) headquarters in Darmstadt,

Scientists decided to crash the craft because the comet is now getting so far away from the sun that the solar panels will not be able to generate enough power to keep it functioning. But by crashing it, they hope to get some last glimpses of the comet – taking what are expected to be stunning images and important data as it heads towards the surface.

The European Space Agency will share those pictures starting on 30 September, through its special picture page and on its social media channels.

Rosetta mission finds oxygen on comet 67P

Rosetta arrived at its comet – known as 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko – in August 2014, after a 10-year journey. Three months later it dropped a lander called Philae onto the surface, which had been sending back information until scientists lost contact with it – and then found it again, earlier this month.

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