The Rosetta probe has crash-landed on to the surface of Comet 67P, concluding its 12-year mission to the mountainous mass of ice and rock.
At noon BST today, scientists at mission control in Germany celebrated Rosetta’s timed collision with muted cheers after radio silence signalled it had finally bowed out. They expected the impact to cause irreparable damage to the craft.
“I can announce full success of this historic descent of Rosetta towards Comet 67P,” said European Space Agency mission manager Patrick Martin, according to the BBC. “Farewell Rosetta; you’ve done the job. That was space science at its best.”
With Comet 67P speeding out towards Jupiter’s orbit, Rosetta’s exposure to the sun was expected to become so weak that it would eventually stop functioning.
But rather than affording the craft a gradual demise, scientists opted for a dramatic exit. They predicted that a final descent would enable Rosetta to relay data which would otherwise have been impossible to capture.
And it did. Before the collision, Rosetta sent back to Earth new measurements and stunning close-up photographs of the comet, which formed four billion years ago. Scientists now have enough data for decades of analysis.
Mark McCaughrean, a senior science advisor at ESA, told Radio 4: “It’s giving us a real insight into the building blocks of the solar system and the material which could have formed life on the earth, not life itself but the raw building blocks.”
Rosetta now rests on Comet 67P along with the Philae lander, which it dropped on to the icy mass’s surface in an unprecedented procedure in November 2014, after a decade long journey from Earth. But Philae landed in an area without sunlight, losing contact with Earth just 60 hours later when it ran out of reserve energy.
Scientists had to wait another 11 months before the lander was exposed to the sun again, providing enough power for it to restart and begin relaying data packets about the surface of the comet back to Earth.
McCaughrean believes Rosetta’s primary legacy will be the impression it leaves on the people who watched its epic mission unfold: “[Rosetta has] engaged the public in a way which is just unparalleled for a robotics space mission.”