Rosetta to meet Philae one last time in destructive end

30 Jun 2016

Comet 67P, the final resting place of both Rosetta and Philae, via Wikimedia Commons

Rosetta, one of the finest achievements in the history of scientific endeavour, has had its death warrant signed by the ESA – and it’s going out with a bang.

When spacecraft malfunction, often the resulting problem is a lack of activity. Be they rovers, satellites or scouts, it’s the silence that haunts.

However, sometimes the mission goes so well that the demise of a spacecraft is left entirely in the hands of its controllers.

Future Human

Last year, for example, Messenger’s mission to Mercury ended in a crash course in crash-coursing your way onto a planet’s surface.

Lucky for us, some wonderful images were taken by Messenger before it’s destructive demise, offering us the best images yet of the nearest planet to our sun.

Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

What next?

However, what of current missions. Where will Hubble go, what of New Horizons, will we even know when Voyager 1 or 2 are finished?

One we do know about is Rosetta, the spacecraft that captured the planet’s attention in the winter of 2014 when it chased down Comet 67P.

The ESA has announced that, as September comes to a close this year, the spacecraft will career into Comet 67P, perhaps catching a glimpse of Philae, it’s celebrity lander, on the way.

Philae, which had a rough end to life as well, discovered that Comet 67P has water ice on its surface, redesigning how we look at comets in the solar system.

At the moment the comet, and therefore Rosetta, is heading out toward Jupiter, losing valuable solar light by the hour. This means less opportunity to control the spacecraft and its instruments, and a reduction in bandwidth available to downlink scientific data.

Tough times

Combined with an ageing spacecraft and payload that has endured the harsh environment of space for more than 12 years – not least two years close to a dusty comet – this means that Rosetta is reaching the end of its natural life.

The final hours of descent will enable Rosetta to make many once-in-a-lifetime measurements, including very-high-resolution imaging, boosting Rosetta’s science return with precious close-up data achievable only through such a unique conclusion.

After it crashes into the comet “communications will cease” says ESA, with a hint of humour.

“30 September will mark the end of spacecraft operations, but the beginning of the phase where the full focus of the teams will be on science,” said Matt Taylor, ESA Rosetta project scientist.

“That is what the Rosetta mission was launched for and we have years of work ahead of us, thoroughly analysing its data.”

The location of Rosetta with respect to the Sun and several planets 30 September, 573 million km from the Sun and 720 million km from Earth, via NASA/JPL/Carnegie Institution of Washington

The location of Rosetta with respect to the sun and several planets on 30 September, 573m km from the Sun and 720m km from Earth, via NASA/JPL/Carnegie Institution of Washington

Complications ahead

It’s not an easy crash landing, despite how those words read, as the comet’s “non-uniform gravity” will make it all a bit erratic, said Sylvain Lodiot, ESA Rosetta spacecraft operations manager.

“Planning this phase is in fact far more complex than it was for Philae’s landing.”

Last year, amid complications following Philae’s rocky landing and a breakdown in communications between the two spacecraft, ESA brought out this magical video. While they probably won’t contact each other again, perhaps they’ll see each other one last time.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic