Rosetta gets a new lease of life, before destructive death

24 Jun 2015

Comet 67P, as seen by Rosetta in February, via ESA

“This is fantastic news for science,” said the ESA upon the announcement that Rosetta, our favourite comet-stalking space voyeur, is to continue on after its scheduled retirement, circling Comet 67P until September next year.

It was supposed to stop tracking the comet this Christmas, but a meeting at ESA where scientists discussed the benefits of following the comet as it finally heads away from the sun saw Rosetta get a stay of execution.

But there will be an execution, one which ESA calmly described as the orbiter “landing on the surface”. Insert the word crash in there somewhere.

It’s actually a pretty cool end to a pretty cool project. Comet 67P will come closest to the sun this August, with the scientists monitoring the whole campaign noting that Rosetta has seen “increased activity” as the sun looms larger.

To see how the comet reacts to its shift away from the heat of the sun – it’s position on 13 August will be about halfway between Earth and Mars – and on into the cold reaches of Jupiter will bring further knowledge of the many comets whizzing around our solar system.

‘We’ll be able to monitor the decline in the comet’s activity as we move away from the Sun again, and we’ll have the opportunity to fly closer to the comet to continue collecting more unique data’ — Matt Taylor, ESA’s Rosetta Project scientist.

“By comparing detailed ‘before and after’ data, we’ll have a much better understanding of how comets evolve during their lifetimes.”

Another thing Taylor and his crew can do is hopefully get some better images of Philae, Rosetta’s little landing pal that reached Comet 67P back in November.

The only images we have of Philae’s landing spot at the moment are taken from 20km away. It’s hoped that Rosetta can get closer and closer, perhaps even capturing an image from half that distance.


Philae landing, as seen by Rosetta, via ESA

By next year, Rosetta will be receiving too little solar power to keep doing its work, so a controlled, three-month descent to its eventual resting place will ensue.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic