Rosetta Probe Makes Controlled Crash Into Its Comet

The spacecraft spent 14 hours free-falling towards the comet's Ma'at region and impacted the surface at barely a walking pace.

Image: The OSIRIS narrow-angle camera aboard the Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft captured this image of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on September 30, 2016, from an altitude of about 10 miles (16 kilometers) above the surface during the spacecraft's controlled descent (ESA/Rosetta/MPS)

Europe's pioneering mission to a comet came to a quiet but triumphant end on Friday with the shutdown of the Rosetta spacecraft as it came to rest on the surface of the icy body it circled for two years.

"It was a fairy tale," said Roger Bonnet, the European Space Agency's former science director.

Rosetta began its journey to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 2004, accompanied by a small spacecraft named Philae. A decade later, the solar-powered spacecraft arrived at 67P and became the first probe in history to orbit a comet.

Rosetta accompanied the comet as it neared the sun, collecting data as ice and dust blasted off its surface, and then continued on toward the deep freeze of the outer solar system. With the sun farther and farther away, Rosetta was losing the ability to charge its batteries.

Managers and scientists knew the mission would come to an end, one way or another and decided to give Rosetta one last assignment. On Friday, the spacecraft descended to the surface of 67P, sending back close-up images of the comet's gravely surface until seconds before its crash landing at 7:19 a.m. EDT.

Unlike Philae, which touched down on 67P to run experiments on the surface, Rosetta was not designed for landing.

"Farewell Rosetta, you've done the job," Patrick Martin, Rosetta mission manager, said during a mission webcast. "This was a tremendous scientific and technical success."

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The last image was taken with Rosetta about 167 feet (51 meters) above the comet. It then shut itself down and crashed, joining the long-dormant Philae lander as 67P barrels out toward Jupiter.

Scientists will spend decades analyzing Rosetta's data and images to learn more about how comets formed and what role they played in the development of life on Earth, and perhaps elsewhere in the solar system.

Already, scientists have discovered that the comet's water has a different chemical composition that that in Earth's oceans, spurring theories that it was mostly water-rich asteroids, rather than comets, that crashed into the developing planet, setting the stage for life.

Rosetta also discovered 67P contains glycine, an amino acid commonly found in proteins, as well as phosphorus, which is found in DNA and cell membranes.

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Data from the mission indicate that comets are leftover bodies from the solar system's formation 4.5 billion years ago, rather than fragments created by larger, more primitive bodies.

"Just as the Rosetta Stone after which this mission was named was pivotal in understanding ancient language and history, the vast treasure trove of Rosetta spacecraft data is changing our view on how comets and the solar system formed," project scientist Matt Taylor said in a statement.

"The comet hasn't given up all of its secrets yet," he added. "We're only just beginning."

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