Probe ends 12-year mis­sion with crash into comet

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - WEATHER - By Frank Jor­dans The As­so­ci­ated Press

BERLIN >> Af­ter 12 years of hurtling through space in pur­suit of a comet, the Rosetta probe ended its mis­sion Fri­day with a slow-mo­tion crash onto the icy sur­face of the alien world it was sent out to study.

Mis­sion con­trollers lost con­tact with the probe, as ex­pected, af­ter it hit the sur­face of comet 67P/Churyu­mov-Gerasi­menko at 6:39 a.m. EDT Fri­day, the Euro­pean Space Agency said.

“Farewell Rosetta, you’ve done the job,” said mis­sion man­ager Pa­trick Martin. “That is space sci­ence at its best.”

ESA chief Jan Wo­erner called the 1.4 bil­lion-euro ($1.57 bil­lion) mis­sion a suc­cess. Aside from send­ing a lan­der onto the sur­face of comet 67P in Novem­ber 2014 — a cos­mic first — the Rosetta mis­sion has col­lected vast amounts of data that re­searchers will spend many years an­a­lyz­ing.

Sci­en­tists have al­ready her­alded sev­eral dis­cov­er­ies from the mis­sion that of­fer new in­sights into the for­ma­tion of the so­lar sys­tem and the ori­gins of life on Earth.

Spec­tac­u­lar im­ages taken by the or­biter and its comet lan­der re­vealed a desert-like land­scape on the comet with wide, fea­ture­less re­gions but also high cliffs and sink­holes that were more than a hun­dred yards across.

The shape of 67P it­self — two orbs con­nected by a “neck” that have been likened to a gi­ant rub­ber duck — sur­prised sci­en­tists when Rosetta first got up close. Re­searchers now be­lieve the orbs formed in­de­pen­dently and later merged into one.

Jes­sica Sun­shine, a se­nior sci­en­tist on NASA’s Deep Im­pact and Star­dust comet mis­sions, said the way the comet was formed has im­pli­ca­tions for the model of how other ob­jects in the so­lar sys­tem, in­clud­ing Earth, formed about 4.5 bil­lion years ago.

Sci­en­tists were also sur­prised to find that the sur­face of 67P is chang­ing, not just due to steady ero­sion as par­ti­cles are re­leased into the void, but also from sud­den large events such as land­slides.

“We see ev­i­dence of mass move­ment of ma­te­ri­als on this comet,” said Sun­shine, who wasn’t di­rectly in­volved in the Rosetta mis­sion. “That’s noth­ing like what we imag­ined.”

One of the cru­cial dif­fer­ences be­tween Rosetta and pre­vi­ous mis­sions was the probe’s abil­ity to study one comet for an ex­tended pe­riod of time. While Deep Im­pact fired a pro­jec­tile into comet Tem­pel 1 back in 2005 and stud­ied the crater for 15 min­utes, Rosetta spent 786 days fly­ing along­side 67P, ob­serv­ing its evo­lu­tion across sev­eral “sea­sons” as it raced to­ward and then away from the Sun.

“Rosetta is what I would call a Cadil­lac mis­sion that had all the right in­stru­ments and stayed rea­son­ably close to the comet since fall 2014,” said Mike A’Hearn, an emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Mary­land who worked on the Rosetta mis­sion.

“It’s the first de­tailed study of a comet,” he said. “We have col­lected a wealth of data that has come in so fast we haven’t even had a chance to look at some of it, let alone an­a­lyze it prop­erly.”

Data from the probe has also chal­lenged some ex­ist­ing sci­en­tific the­o­ries, such as those about the ori­gins of water on Earth and how best to hunt for ex­trater­res­trial life.

“Rosetta has blown it all open,” said Matt Tay­lor, the mis­sion’s project sci­en­tist. “It’s made us have to change our ideas of what comets are, where they came from and the im­pli­ca­tions for how the so­lar sys­tem formed and how we got to where we are to­day.”

Sci­en­tists de­cided to crash-land the probe on the comet be­cause Rosetta’s so­lar pan­els would not have been able to col­lect enough en­ergy as it flew away from the Sun along 67P’s el­lip­ti­cal or­bit.

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Rosetta’s OSIRIS nar­row-an­gle cam­era cap­tured this im­age of Comet 67P/Churyu­mov-Gerasi­menko at 08:21 GMT from an al­ti­tude of about 3.5 miles dur­ing the space­craft’s fi­nal de­scent on Fri­day.

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