Rosetta, the Comet Chaser, Finally Says Goodnight


By Chris Blondell

Just recently, Rosetta, the spacecraft famous for making the first comet landing in history, smacked into the icy surface of the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Then, it carried out one final maneuver, set on a crash course with the comet and went dark, concluding an historic mission that excited the science community in a way like no other.

Rosetta made headlines two years ago when its lander module, Philae, landed on the surface of the comet, giving the world a close-up view of a comet. There were complications during the landing, but it didn’t cause scientists to lose their excitement. Getting into a comet’s orbit was monumental enough, so landing on it was an entirely different achievement.

Although Philae went dark after three days, the amount of knowledge gathered from this two-year mission is astronomical. This was a mission of firsts. Rosetta was the first spacecraft to:

  • Fly close to Jupiter’s orbit
  • Orbit a comet nucleus
  • Fly alongside a comet as it headed toward the inner Solar System
  • Examine the activity of a frozen comet being warmed by the sun

It was also the first European spacecraft to have a close encounter with asteroids in the main belt.

And on September 30, it all came to a glorious end.

In 1986, during the approach of Halley’s Comet, international space probes were sent into space to examine the comet. A lot of valuable data was recovered from those missions, and it became abundantly clear that we needed to study comets even further. Other flyby missions took pictures and gathered what little samples they could grab, but that doesn’t compare with the ultimate goal of actually landing on a comet.

Rosetta’s design, which consisted of two solar arrays totaling 64 square meters, was built in a “clean room” (a room that’s totally sterile). Why? Comets are thought to be a really good spot to find prebiotic molecules: molecules that are precursors to life, but not actually living organisms. A completely sterile spacecraft had a greater chance of picking up those molecules.

And how cool would that have been?

Image via Flickr

Image via Flickr

Originally, Rosetta was set to launch in January of 2003 and was supposed to land on comet 46P/Wirtanen in 2011. After some technical difficulties surrounding the launch, a new launch date was set in March of 2004. Using gravity assist maneuvers to accelerate through space, Rosetta did three Earth flybys, a low altitude flyby of Mars and an asteroid flyby in the main belt.

In late 2014, after two months of orbit, Philae detached from Rosetta and landed on comet 67P after bouncing on the surface and coming to rest in an awkward position in the shadow of a nearby cliff. Unfortunately, its position left it unable to face its solar panels at the sun and therefore unable to charge its batteries.

Regardless, Philae went through with its mission: to characterize the nucleus, determine the chemical compounds present and study the comet activities and developments over time. Contact was briefly and intermittently reestablished until Philae finally went dark.

For the remaining years, Rosetta continued to orbit and take stunning photographs of comet 67P. While in this orbit, Rosetta came across a unique opportunity: 67P was on a trajectory headed towards the sun, which was the first time that the scientific community could observe the activity on a comet’s surface as it gradually warms. The results of the data have inspired and excited scientists, leaving them hungry for more.

Leaving us hungry for more, however, is exactly what our scientific community needs. Striving to learn more about the unknown is precisely what drives innovators and thought leaders to discovery. Despite its failings, the Rosetta mission is one of the most inspiring scientific expeditions of this century.

Innovation comes from our curiosities and from our motivation to launch our species further into the future. The ultimate outcome of Rosetta’s mission was simply a teaser of great things to come.

Rosetta’s mission is the human mission. We strive for more, we fail, we pick ourselves up, we learn all we can and we keep pushing. So when you’re working to accomplish that next big idea, take a moment and look to the stars. You might just find the inspiration you need.

Lead image via Wikimedia Commons

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