Skip to main content

Rosetta's final images before crash-landing detail the stunning Comet 67P

Twelve years ago, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta probe took launched from French Guiana for a 10-year journey to rendezvous with Comet 67P. Its sidekick, a robotic lander named Philae, gained international attention when it had a bumpy landing on the comet in November 2014. Philae — the little lander that could — remained operational for a couple weeks before falling into hibernation as its battery weakened. It maintained sporadic communication thereafter. The episode gained international attention, depicted in a number of charming comic updates released by ESA.

The Rosetta spacecraft has now joined Philae on Comet 67P. Yesterday, the probe began a 13-hour free fall that ended in a (relatively) gentle crash at the Ma’at landing site at 6:39 a.m. ET on Friday. During its decent, the spacecraft snapped a series of images of Comet 67P with its OSIRIS (Optical, Spectroscopic, and Infrared Remote Imaging System) camera. The stunning photos reveal the comet’s bulbous “head,” jagged cliffs, and shadowy crevasses in unprecedented detail. It took roughly 40 minutes for the data to beam back to Earth.

Although Philae was designed to handle the impact of its landing, Rosetta was not. ESA published images of the signals it received from Rosetta during its last half hour in restful operation.

The Rosetta mission was marked by expected discoveries and surprises of the comet, which scientists see as a cosmic time capsule that can help unlock the history of our solar system.

When the spacecraft first arrived at 67P, a few months prior to Philae’s rough landing, the OSIRIS camera captured data that confirmed the comet’s irregular shape and structure. In September 2014, ultraviolet wavelength images showed that the comet’s surface was surprisingly dark and detected the presence of hydrogen and oxygen. Scientists were confident the comet would contain water ice due to its distance from the sun but, to their surprise, none was found. The significant ratio of heavy water to normal water on the 67P — nearly three times that found on Earth — suggested that the origin of water on Earth is unlikely from similar celestial bodies.

Regardless, any discovery can be considered a good discovery and, despite the challenges faced by both Philae and Rosetta, the mission’s ability to overcome adversity and transmit valuable data made it an overall success.

Editors' Recommendations

Dyllan Furness
Dyllan Furness is a freelance writer from Florida. He covers strange science and emerging tech for Digital Trends, focusing…
Crater confusion caused Japan’s Hakuto lunar mission to fail
iSpace's Hakuto-R Series 1 lander.

Japan’s ispace startup last month very nearly succeeded in becoming the first team to land a privately funded spacecraft on the moon.

But the mission ended in failure when the $90 million lander -- Hakuto -- lost touch with mission controllers before crash landing on the lunar surface, bringing the endeavor to an abrupt end.

Read more
UAE to send its first mission to solar system’s main asteroid belt
An artist's impression of the MBR Explorer spacecraft approaching an asteroid.

Following the success of its mission to Mars, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) plans to send a new spacecraft to an asteroid belt to investigate the history of the solar system and the potential origins of life.

The aim is for the Emirates Mission to the Asteroid Belt (EMA) to visit its first asteroid in 2030. It will visit a number of asteroids in the belt between Mars and Jupiter, following a launch in 2028, and will even land on one. The spacecraft will be named MBR after the ruler of UAE.

Read more
Astronomers discover three exoplanets in final data from Kepler Space Telescope
An artist's concept of the Kepler spacecraft.

The Kepler Space Telescope was retired in 2018 after a nine-year mission that saw it discover an incredible 2,600 confirmed exoplanets, kicking off the modern era of exoplanet research. But now there are three more exoplanets to add to the mission's total, even after the telescope has been dark for the last five years. Astronomers were recently able to use data from the very last observations of Kepler to discover three more planets.

Two of the three exoplanets have been confirmed -- K2-416 b and K2-417 b -- with a third planet, EPIC 246251988 b, remaining an exoplanet candidate. (To be upgraded from exoplanet candidate to confirmed exoplanet, an initial observation has to be verified through observations by two other telescopes.) The planets range from 2.6 times the size of Earth to 4 times the size of Earth, making them small in comparison to most discovered exoplanets.

Read more