Rosetta Becomes One With Comet 67P
On September 29th, 2016, ESA’s Rosetta orbiter made a guided “soft” crash landing onto the nucleus of Comet 67P. It’s now forever a part of the comet. It will be until the nucleus breaks up sometime in the future as it rounds the Sun. By all accounts (and you can read detailed reports on the mission at the Rosetta site), the mission was a rousing success. It was the first one to do a long-term orbit of a comet and send back stunning high-res images of the nucleus. That alone cemented its place in history for me. Back in grad school I studied comets and always wondered what it would be like to land on a nucleus. With Rosetta, that wonder was satisfied.
Exploring Small Worlds
Rosetta isn’t the first and won’t be the last to study such fascinating world. I feel pretty confident that there will be more probes to asteroids and comets. These objects are the building blocks of the solar system. These families of small bodies were the first to clump together to form the planets. That means they hold the key to understanding what materials and conditions were like as the solar system formed some 4.6 billion years ago. They may even hold clues to primordial materials that existed even before the Sun and planets began their birth process. For those reasons and many others, I hope we do continue to study these worldlets.
What’s Next For the Rosetta Mission?
The scientists on the Rosetta mission literally have many years worth of study ahead of them. The spacecraft sent back tantalizing data about the ices and dust in the comet, its lack of magnetic field, and other characteristics. I imagine that many post-docs and PhD students will contribute their brainpower to understanding the data and communicating what they find to the rest of us. So, far from being over, the Rosetta spacecraft’s greatest legacy is just beginning: analyzing and comprehending what the spacecraft “saw” for the rest of us.