The famous spacecraft is sending us close-up images of the 67P comet as it flies on a climactic collision course with the comet’s surface.
The Rosetta spacecraft was launched in 2004 on a mission to gather information on a comet. In the 12 years that followed it has taken photographs, launched a smaller probe onto the comet’s surface and spent years in hibernation. But now it is in the midst of performing its final act – providing us with more detailed images of the comet’s terrain than ever before as it slowly paces toward the surface and a permanent end to its mission.
Why do we want to gather information on a comet?
Rosetta’s destination, 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, is a four-kilometre (2.5-mile) diameter comet, currently orbiting the Sun between Mars and Jupiter. As comets are the least altered remnants from the early days of our planetary system, they are our best chance of understanding what conditions were present when our Sun was initially developing.
A further mission objective is to ascertain whether comets were responsible for seeding life on Earth. The composition of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen present in organic molecules in a comet are strikingly similar to the building blocks of life on our world, so the Rosetta mission should shed more light on this issue.
Although this will be the last time Rosetta completes a mission, the team behind the spacecraft want to end the mission on a high while the equipment still works. Also, Rosetta and its comet host will soon be far away from the Sun and be behind it in terms of where Earth is, so communication and power for the spacecraft’s solar panels will soon become other formidable problems.
The team could have opted for a safer landing using Rosetta’s reverse thrusters, but they’ve instead chosen to sacrifice the spacecraft to make sure any samples on the surface aren’t contaminated.
Image credits: NASA. ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA.
Written by the How It Works team.
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