The Rosetta spacecraft captured a final image of the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko shortly before crash-landing into the comet’s surface, bringing an end to the probe’s twelve-year long journey. The final descent gave European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta the opportunity to study the comet’s gas, dust and plasma environment very close to its surface, as well as take very high-resolution images.
The final image was taken from an altitude of 20 metres above the comet’s surface by the spacecraft’s OSIRIS wide-angle camera yesterday. “The initial report of 51 metres was based on the predicted impact time. Now that the time has been confirmed, and following additional information and timeline reconstruction, the estimated distance has been updated,” NASA said.
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The decision to end the mission on the surface is a result of Rosetta and the comet heading out beyond the orbit of Jupiter again. Farther from the Sun than Rosetta had ever journeyed before, there would be little power to operate the craft.
Mission operators were also faced with an imminent month-long period when the Sun is close to the line-of-sight between Earth and Rosetta, meaning communications with the craft would have become increasingly more difficult. The European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission was launched in 2004 and arrived at comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on August 6 in 2014.
It is the first mission in history to rendezvous with a comet and escort it as it orbits the Sun. On November 4 in 2014, a smaller lander name Philae, which had been deployed from the Rosetta mothership, touched down on the comet and bounced several times before finally alighting on the surface.
Philae obtained the first images taken from a comet’s surface and sent back valuable scientific data for several days. Comets are time capsules containing primitive material left over from the epoch when the Sun and its planets formed.
Rosetta is the first spacecraft to witness at close proximity how a comet changes as it is subjected to the increasing intensity of the Sun’s radiation.
Observations will help scientists learn more about the origin and evolution of our solar system and the role comets may have played in the formation of planets.