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The Rosetta Orbiter Is Set To End Its Life By Crashing Into A Comet

Comet 67P - Photo from Wikipedia

The Rosetta orbiter is set to end its two-year space mission in a few days by crashing on Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, joining its lander Philae on the comet’s surface.

Philae was missing for two years before it was found already out of commission on the comet. Rosetta, a European Space Agency spacecraft, launched in March 2004 to study Comet 67P. It was named for the famous Rosetta Stone on display in England.

As the comet’s orbit goes farther from the sun, the spacecraft’s solar panels will receive less light, therefore diminishing its energy. The team monitoring Rosetta considered putting it in hibernation until the comet comes around again in four or five years, but decided that the risk of the spacecraft failing to wake up again was too great, the Washington Post reports.

Rosetta will still be serving science until its last days.

On September 30, it is set to enter the mysterious region on Comet 67P known as Ma’at, which has several “active pits.”

Comets are studied because of the materials they hold in their icy cores, as these formed at the birth of the solar system and have been kept from degrading. Scientists keep hoping that these primeval building blocks can help unravel the secrets of the early universe.

The Ma’at region on 67P has pits several hundreds of feet wide and deep, some of which have been observed to eject gasses and dust.

Mark McCaughrean, one of the senior science advisers at ESA, explained that there are “deposits of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide ice” on the comet that evaporate due to the sun’s heat. These leave caverns that contain “goosebumps or dragon’s eggs that could be primordial objects from which the comet formed.” Rosetta will be studying these formations.

Rosetta will complete a final flyover on September 24 then begin a series of course corrections that will send it into a pit named Deir el-Medina, sending back images of the pit as it goes.

The mission has been successful, scientists say. Data from the orbiter has been used to disprove theories and discover certain life-providing organic molecules. There is still plenty of Rosetta’s data for researchers to pore over.

McCaughrean says of the spacecraft’s demise, “It will be an emotional moment. This has been a wonderful mission and a great team effort.”

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