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‘Rock-n-roll’ Rosetta ends its cosmic saga

Published : Oct 1, 2016, 2:38 am IST
Updated : Oct 1, 2016, 2:38 am IST

A model of orbiter Rosetta hangs from the ceiling in a conference room at the European Space Agency in Darmstadt, Germany, on Friday. (Photo: AP)

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A model of orbiter Rosetta hangs from the ceiling in a conference room at the European Space Agency in Darmstadt, Germany, on Friday. (Photo: AP)

Europe’s pioneering Rosetta spacecraft concluded a 12-year odyssey with a controlled crash-landing Friday onto the comet it has orbited and probed for two years to unravel the secrets of the Solar System’s birth, mission controllers said.

“I can confirm the full success of the descent of Rosetta,” mission manager Patrick Martin announced to wild cheering in the control centre, based in Darmstadt near Frankfurt in Western Germany. “Rock-n-roll Rosetta,” added a visibly moved Matt Taylor, the mission’s project scientist, as he stepped from the podium, holding — and shaking —- his head.

In the hours before the crash-landing, Rosetta gathered crucial last-gasp data from nearer the galactic wanderer than ever before, its instruments primed to sniff the comet’s gassy halo, measure temperature and gravity, and take close-up pictures of the spot that is now its icy tomb. The craft had been programmed for a “controlled impact”, at a human walking pace of about 90 cm per second, after a 14-hour freefall from an altitude of 19 km. Confirmation of the mission’s end came at 1119 GMT, when the spacecraft’s signal — with a 40-minute delay — faded from ground controllers’ computer screens.

The trailblazing craft’s final manoeuvre was executed at a distance of 720 million km from Earth, with the comet zipping through space at a speed of over 14 km per second. Mission scientists expected it would bounce and tumble about before settling — but Rosetta’s exact fate will never be known as it was instructed to switch off on first impact. The comet chaser was never designed to land.

The first-ever mission to orbit and land on a comet was approved in 1993 to explore the birth of our Solar System 4.6 billion years ago. Rosetta and lander probe Philae travelled more than six billion kilometres over 10 years to reach 67P in August 2014.

Philae was released onto the comet surface in November of that year, bouncing several times, then gathering 60 hours of on-site data which it sent home before entering standby mode. Having made the closest approach on its 6.6-year loop around the Sun in August last year, the comet is now moving further and further away from our planetary system’s central star, which means Rosetta’s solar panels are catching fewer battery-replenishing rays.

Rather than just letting it fade away, scientists opted to end the mission on a high by taking measurements from up close,-too close to risk under usual operating conditions.

Flight operations director Andrea Accomazzo, working on Rosetta for nearly 20 years, confessed “of course there is a bit of sadness.”

Location: Germany, Hessen, Darmstadt