In the wee morning hours of September 30, the European Space Agency (ESA) crashed its Rosetta space probe into Comet 67P, which it had orbited for about 2 years.
Below is the final photo the space probe took and beamed back to Earth shortly before slamming into the comet and ending its robotic life — joining its robotic friend, the Philae lander, which accidentally bounced into a dark crevasse on the comet’s surface and was never heard from again.
The photo was taken from about 167 ft (51 m) away and covers a width of about 8 ft (2.4 m), revealing 4.6-billion-year-old rocks and rubble that make up the comet.
The shot is blurry because the image was taken by a wide-angle camera that’s designed to take photos from farther away:
Back in 2014, the tortured love story of Rosetta and Philae gripped the world.
After a 10-year-journey, billions of miles through the solar system, the two spacecraft parted ways as Philae chased its goal of becoming the first spacecraft to land on a comet.
Things only got worse when, upon separation, Philae’s harpoons and thruster failed, causing it to bounce and tumble into a crack cut off from sunlight. The lonely probe was forced to go into hibernation, unable to glean solar energy and communicate with Rosetta except for fleeting moments in June and July of 2015.
Scientists could only narrow down Philae’s location to an area of about 100 feet on the icy Central Park-sized comet.
But earlier this month, Rosetta finally spotted Philae, tucked quietly into a dusky nook with its limbs in the air.
And now, just weeks after finally spotting its lost companion, Rosetta has joined Philae in eternal sleep on Comet 67P.
Rosetta slowly crashed into a pit on Comet 67P, and in the process collected some unprecedented data about the comet (including the above photo) as it sacrificed itself in the name of science.
Using a short series of thrust maneuvers, Rosetta’s earthbound operators turned its elliptical orbit into a crash-course toward its final resting place.
“Although we’ve been flying Rosetta around the comet for two years now, keeping it operating safely for the final weeks of the mission in the unpredictable environment of this comet and so far from the Sun and Earth, will be our biggest challenge yet,” Sylvain Lodiot, ESA’s spacecraft operations manager, said in a press release issued before impact.
As Rosetta approached the active pits of the Ma’at region, it snapped high-resolution images and analysed gas and dust spit out by the pits in jets. It targeted one pit in particular, called Deir el-Medina, which might reveal some of the geological history of that region of the comet.
“The heat of the sun, spreading through the comet, warms underground deposits of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide ice,” Mark McCaughrean, a senior science adviser at ESA, previously told the Guardian. “These deposits then evaporate, leaving caverns whose roofs collapse. Inside them, you can see features we call goosebumps or dragon’s eggs that could be primordial objects from which the comet formed. So we’re taking Rosetta down to study these.”
Rosetta’s descent started at a slow crawl of about 12 inches per second, tripling in speed as it gets closer to the weak tug of the comet’s gravity, and eventually fell to the comet’s surface where it now rests with its long lost soulcraft, Philae.
Check out the ESA’s video showing Rosetta’s final orbits around the comet: