Europe must find another Rosetta

11:19 GMT (12:19 BST; 13:19 CEST) was greeted with bittersweet handshakes.

Europe’s Rosetta probe has ended its mission to Comet 67P by crash landing onto it’s surface and its inevitable end brought with it the strangest of atmospheres. Quite sombre, more akin almost to a funeral. I was glued to my television watching mission control in Darmstadt, Germany, where controllers had waited in silence for a radio signal to drop off their screens. As it did, rather abruptly, suddenly flatlining, it indicated that the probe had been damaged beyond use and therefore the billion-Euro Rosetta mission had come to an end.

“I can announce full success of this historic descent of Rosetta towards Comet 67P”

said European Space Agency mission manager Patrick Martin

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This happened 720,000,000km away (447,387,258 miles) on the other side of our Solar System, the Rosetta probe that had captivated the world with its examination of comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko had just landed, albeit very gently on the surface at 2ft per second, slower than walking pace in fact, on the comet and shut itself down (in realtime it happened 40mins earlier due to its distance from Earth and the delay in time it takes for the confirmation signal to be received.)

“This is the end of the Rosetta mission. Thank you and goodbye”

the spacecraft operations manager Sylvain Lodiot announced

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To witness a reaction as muted as this control room was, shouldn’t really have been a surprise, they were grieving. Some engineers and controllers had made their careers, and some would subsequently end them with the conclusion of the Rosetta mission as they had worked on the project for a little over 30 years.

Because the Rosetta probe was not designed to land, the majority of its structures likely broke apart upon impact with the comet. Controllers left no room for doubt in any case by even pre-loading a software sequence that would tell the computers to shutdown when the probe felt a ‘significant’ jolt that resembled an impact of some sort, and after that they couldn’t be restarted.

15-5km

15.5km above the surface of Comet 67P

11-7km

11.7km above the surface of Comet 67P

5-8km

5.8km above the surface of Comet 67P

1-2km

1.2km above the surface of Comet 67P

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20m above the surface of Comet 67P (Final image from Rosetta)

But even at the end, literally, Rosetta was still hard at work and transmitting its findings back to Earth; The OSIRIS narrow-angle camera aboard Rosetta recorded observations as it orbited above and also as it descended onto Comet 67P have transformed scientists understanding of comets that wander among the planets. And this without even mentioning the success of Rosetta’s compatriot Philae; a small landing module called Philae released from Rosetta that landed on to the surface in November 2014 to gather additional information – a huge moment in the history of space exploration in its own right!

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Without question, the Rosetta mission was, and is, a pinnacle of scientific and deep space exploratory achievement, and therefore it was natural that people should have a feeling of grief.

“It’s like RIP Rosetta. It’s really sad… I mean really, really sad.”

said the Open University scientist Monica Grady.

So, where next I wonder?

The immediate focus of everyone’s attention has already turned to Mars, and the ‘BEPICOLOMBO’ mission that is planning to orbit Mercury, if it isn’t delayed any longer than it already has been. Off in the distance is the ‘JUICE’ venture due to be launched in 2022. JUICE stands for JUpiter ICy moon Explorer. The spacecraft will use the Jupiter’s gravity to initiate a series of close fly-bys around moons Callisto and Europa, and then finally put itself in a settled orbit around Ganymede. JUICE with determine whether there is a possibility that these moons could sustain microbial life. It is suspected that Callisto, Europa and Ganymede have oceans of water below their icy surfaces, and as such, they may have environments conducive to life, albeit at a microbial level with a simple biology.

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Artist’s impression of ESA’s JUICE venture

There’s also a satellite called Solar Orbiter (SolO), which will launch in October 2018 and is a planned Sun-observing satellite. SolO will perform detailed measurements of the inner heliosphere and nascent solar wind, and perform close observations of the polar regions of the Sun, which is difficult to do from Earth observation.

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Artist’s impression of ESA’s Solar Orbiter

Surely the big question (and it’s very much the elephant in the room) is: What comes as an encore for the European Space Agency? A ‘sample’ return to Earth perhaps? One concept, called ‘CASTALIA’, would send a spacecraft to the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter to study an object that shows very comet-like behaviour. The other, known as CORE (Comet Rendezvous Explorer), would attempt to put another lander on another comet.

When Europe’s Giotto probe visited Halley’s Comet in 1986, it gave Europe a lead in cometary science that lasted for the almost two decades, and Rosetta is going to do the same for the next fifteen or twenty years. What should be clear from the whole Rosetta experience is that the World certainly engaged with the mission in a way they don’t always with telescopes, even with the mighty Hubble Telescope.

With SolO looking to launch in 2018, and JUICE launching in 2022, the next decade seems preoccupied with observation, measuring and monitoring, and imaging. So it looks like we’re in it for the long game, waiting for a ‘lander’ or probe that will dare to offer a challenge for Rosetta’s throne.

“For me, we’ve learned that big projects pay off. This project was conceived 30 years ago. It’s been a massive investment, a massive risk, but also a massive success.”

said Rosetta’s flight director, Andrea Accomazzo.

Title picture credit: ESA

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