(CN) – The European Space Agency’s Rosetta space probe will end its mission Friday in a planned crash-landing on the comet it’s collecting data from that will be used to make new discoveries for years to come.
Originally launched in 2004, Rosetta took a decade to reach comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. It then released the probe Philae, which performed the first comet landing in November 2014.
Rosetta and Philae carry more than two dozen scientific instruments that provided researchers with significant new insights into the composition of comets and the formation of celestial bodies.
“The European Space Agency’s Rosetta Mission is a magnificent demonstration of what excellent mission design, execution, and international collaboration can achieve,” said Geoff Yoder, acting associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “Being neighbors with a comet for more than two years has given the world invaluable insight into these beautiful nomads of deep space.”
The mission found molecular oxygen on the comet, which forced scientists to reconsider previous assumptions guiding the search for alien life. Rosetta’s instruments also discovered that the type of water on the comet is different from that on Earth – challenging the theory that most of the water on our planet came from comets crashing into it.
Rosetta’s final descent will enable the space probe to take once-in-a-lifetime measurements, such as snapping very high-resolution images of the comet nucleus and analyzing gas and dust closer to the surface than ever possible. Some of the images will provide views of the open pits of the Ma’at region, where Rosetta is expected to take its final dive. The region features several active pits that are more than 300 feet in diameter and 160 to 200 feet deep.
The walls of the pits in Ma’at have lumpy, 3-foot-wide structures which scientists call “goose bumps.” They believe those structures could be the signatures of primordial byproducts that assembled to create the comet in the early phases of solar system formation.
Rosetta will attempt to get images of the lumpy structures on Sept. 30, when the spacecraft will target an area adjacent to a 430-foot-wide pit that the mission team has informally named Deir el-Medina.
“Rosetta will keep giving us data to the very end,” said Bonnie Buratti, project scientist for the U.S. Rosetta project at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “NASA’s three instruments aboard Rosetta will be among those collecting data all the way down.”
The three NASA science instruments are an ultraviolet spectrometer called Alice, the microwave instrument for Rosetta Orbiter, and the ion and electron sensor. They are a part of a suite of 11 science instruments on the orbiter.
The ion and electron sensor is one of five instruments that analyzes the comet’s plasma environment, particularly the cloud surrounding the head of the comet. The instrument measures the charged particles in the sun’s outer atmosphere — known as solar wind — as they interact with the gas flowing out from the comet.
Rosetta is the first mission in history to rendezvous with a comet and escort it on its orbit of the sun.
“It will be hard to see that last transmission from Rosetta come to an end,” Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Art Chmielewski said. “But whatever melancholy we will be experiencing will be more than made up for in the elation that we will feel to have been part of this truly historic mission of exploration.”
Photo: ESA/ATG medialab
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