Rosetta spacecraft set to crash land on Comet 67P
Scientists behind the historic Rosetta mission have said their goodbyes to the spacecraft as it entered the final stage of its descent on to a comet. The quest to 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is due to end with a crunch at around 11.38am Irish time on Friday.
Rosetta will share its resting place with a tiny lander it dispatched onto the surface nearly two years ago, spelling the end of the daring expedition that began in 2004.
Scientists at the European Space Agency (ESA) set the orbiter on a collision course with the chunk of ice and dust on Thursday evening.
A note signed by the team and left on the main control room door at the European Space Operations Centre said: “Farewell Rosetta! We will miss you.”
Prof Monica Grady, a British scientist involved in the design of the lander, said she had “very mixed feelings” as the end approached.
“It’s been a fantastic mission, but it’s time now to move on to the next one,” she told BBC News.
“It’s been a tremendous achievement by the European Space Agency, it’s been absolutely amazing.”
Mission controllers transmitted the final commands — 249 lines of instructions – to the orbiter at around 5.40am.
Confirmation of the spacecraft’s death is not expected until later because of the time it takes for radio signals from Rosetta to reach Earth.
Despite travelling at just 1.8 km/h — walking pace — the craft is not designed for landing and will not survive.
Scientists hope to obtain stunning images and valuable data in the final moments before impact.
It is expected to keep taking photos at a rate of three a minute and collecting data with its instruments until it hits the surface.
Rosetta will remain crumpled and lifeless on the surface of the comet as the object, a dirty chunk of ice and dust measuring 4.5 km across, carries it on repeated circuits of the solar system that may continue for millions of years.
The decision to crash the spacecraft was taken because the comet is now heading so far from the Sun that soon its solar panels will not be able to generate enough power to keep it functioning.
Rosetta reached Comet 67P on August 6th 2014, after a 10-year journey through the solar system.
Three months later, on November 12th, the spacecraft deployed a tiny lander, called Philae, which bounced on to the comet surface before coming to rest in a dark crevice.
Philae’s precise location remained unknown until September 2nd this year when Rosetta spotted the craft lying crookedly at a site on the comet’s smaller lobe, later named Abydos.
All contact with Philae was lost in July after the ESA switched off Rosetta’s radio link with the lander.
On Friday Rosetta will follow Philae down to the comet’s smaller lobe, targeting the Ma’at region that is littered with boulders and deep active pits — some more than 100 metres across — known to produce jets of gas and dust.