Earlier this morning, the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft took a leisurely dive onto the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.
After 12 years in space and more than two years orbiting the comet, Rosetta was moving far away from the Sun and running out of juice. Scientists decided that instead of letting the spacecraft simply drift away, they'd execute one last maneuver — a 20-kilometer flop at two miles per hour onto the comet's surface, cameras and scientific instruments transmitting data all the way down. These are the last images Rosetta sent back:
Shot 15.5 kilometers with the wide-angle camera. This is the "head" of the duck-shaped comet, with the image measuring about 3.2 kilometers in width. (67P itself is about as big as a good-sized mountain, say, Mount Fuji.)
Shot at 11.7 kilometers with the narrow-angle camera. This was taken at 12:05AM ET this morning, and shows the comet's surprisingly dusty surface.
8.9 kilometers distance, shot with the narrow-angle camera.
At 5.8 kilometers with the narrow-angle camera. The stretch of comet seen here is about 225 meters across.
Shot at 1.2 kilometers with the narrow-angle camera. Showing 33 meters of comet.
The final image shot by Rosetta before impact. It was taken with the Osiris wide-angle camera at an estimated altitude of just 20 meters above the surface of 67P.
And that's it — those are best and closest images of a comet we are likely to see in our lifetime. But while the Rosetta mission may be over, scientists say they still have "decades" of analysis to do on the data it collected. Rosetta (and its lander Philae) collected all sorts of information about 67P, everything from its magnetic field to its water jets.
In doing so, we've revolutionized what we know about comets, showing that these celestial objects are not hard balls of rock and ice, but dusty, porous objects that are actually 70 percent empty space; and that they really do date back to the beginning of the Solar System, forming, essentially, from planetary leftovers. And while we now believe they probably didn't see the Earth with water (as some pre-Rosetta theories claimed), they may have dropped organic compounds into the primordial soup, flavoring, and perhaps even instigating, the life that formed therein.
So long Rosetta, and thanks for all the science.
All images courtesy of the European Space Agency.