Rosetta: The final descent

Christopher Little tributes to Rosetta’s final mission

17th October 2016

The Rosetta spacecraft has pursued a comet across the Solar System for over 12 years, but now the chase is well and truly up.

In a grand finale, the European Space Agency’s historic mission came to an end on 30 September when the spacecraft collided with the Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in a controlled descent. Faced with the prospect of losing power as the pair hurtles away from the Sun, ESA made the difficult decision to send Rosetta on a kamikaze mission to collect some last vital data.

“They revealed a geologically complex world with chemicals crucial to the emergence of life

Named after the ancient stone that provided the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics, ESA’s spacecraft was tasked with solving a much older puzzle; to look back 4600 million years ago and unlock the mysteries of the building blocks of our Solar System.

Rosetta journeyed 6.4 billion kilometres to rendezvous with one of these primordial time capsules and became the first spacecraft to ever orbit a comet. Further history was made when its probe Philae made a bumpy landing on the duck-shaped comet’s surface, after its harpoon anchoring system failed to fire.

Together, they revealed a geologically complex world with chemicals crucial to the emergence of life. They shook up existing theories by discovering an abundance of molecular oxygen (something that was not thought possible) and even let us know what a comet’s atmosphere smells like.

With Rosetta’s swansong only adding to the treasure chest of data waiting to be analysed, it is now down to ESA to decipher the ancient mysteries that are lurking within.

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