PARIS – Robotic comet explorer Rosetta sent home a last-gasp photo of its target’s rocky facade before crashing into its surface to end a 12-year deep-space odyssey, ground controllers said Thursday.
Almost a year to the day since Rosetta’s demise on Sept. 30 last year, the European Space Agency (ESA) issued the fuzzy image of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, pieced together from the final bursts of data relayed by the orbiter.
The image of a 1-square-meter section of comet — presumed to be Rosetta’s boulder-strewn, dusty resting place — was taken from a distance of about 20 meters.
“There was one last surprise in store,” for the team who operated the cameras on board Rosetta, said an ESA statement. “We found a few telemetry packets on our server and thought, wow, that could be another image.”
The image had been sent in six separate packets of data, but only three were received. It was just enough to be reconstituted by mission scientists on Earth, though not as crisp as it would otherwise have been.
The trailblazing project, first approved in 1993, saw Rosetta launched in March 2004, with comet lander Philae on board.
The pair traveled 6.5 billion kilometers (4 billion miles) to reach the comet in March 2014, which Rosetta then studied from orbit and Philae on its surface.
Rosetta’s suicide mission was executed at a distance of 720 million kilometers (450 million miles) from Earth, with the comet zipping through space at a speed of over 14 kilometers per second (9 miles per second).
Insights gleaned from the €1.4 billion ($1.6 billion) project have shown that comets crashing into an early Earth may well have brought amino acids, the building blocks of life.