After 12 years of journeying through the solar system, comet tracking spacecraft Rosetta said goodbye. At 6:39 a.m. ET, Rosetta completed a 14 hour free fall to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko about 444 million miles away from Earth.
Working hard even in its final moments, Rosetta sent back photos of 67P taken from 16 feet above the surface, showing gravel fields and craggy boulders. At the spacecraft’s operations center in Germany, scientists and engineers were watching Rosetta’s heartbeat–a green line representing Rosetta’s radio transmission–zigzagging across the screen, until it stopped.
“It’s almost like watching a human being passing away,” NASA’s Bonnie Buratti, NASA’s Rosetta project scientist, said from Germany. “The radio signal flat-lined, and we knew.”
The spacecraft now lies close to Philae, the lander which descended on the comet in late 2014. Even though Rosetta touched down on 67P at a slow 2mph speed, it is doubtful that the craft that was not equipped for landing would have survived the fall. Besides, its equipment was shut down at the moment it crashed into the comet. So, we will never know if Rosetta survived the impact.
The European Space Agency commented on the outstanding success of the mission. “It’s a bittersweet ending, but in the end the mechanics of the Solar System were simply against us: Rosetta’s destiny was set a long time ago. But its superb achievements will now remain for posterity and be used by the next generation of young scientists and engineers around the world.”