Celestial Send-off

by Summer Ash


Yesterday morning, the European Space Agency's Rosetta Mission was given a fond farewell as it performed the final maneuver of its programmed life - a controlled descent onto the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. I'm still consoling myself on the loss by cozying up on my couch in my Le Petite Prince sweater which is one of my most treasured possession in the world.


Rosetta launched in 2004, but didn't fully enter our hearts and minds when it rendezvoused with its target in mid-2014 and began sending back some of the most incredible images of this strangely beautiful rocky interloper. 

Browsing through ESA's Rosetta gallery reminds me just what an amazing time we live in. Humans banded together to create the dream, the technology, and the means to not only build and launch a spacecraft to a comet, but one that could orbit it, send down a lander, and then later descend to the surface itself.

Every single image is worth contemplating in detail if you have a quite moment, but here are just a few of my favorites.


October 19, 2014: As Rosetta approached the comet in the summer of 2014, scientists saw the comet had a very irregular shape, instead of one lumpy body, it looked more like two stuck together. In fact, the closer Rosetta got, the increased resolution in images revealed it to be shaped like a rubber duck. This image is looking from the "head" of the duck towards the "body." (Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NavCam – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0)


January 22, 2015: Comet 67P from a distance of 27.9 km above the surface looking at the "neck" area of the duck. The Hathor cliffs are to the left and the Hapi region strewn with boulders are just right of center. (Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Navcam – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0)


July 26, 2015: When Rosetta first reached Comet 67P, it was far enough away from the Sun that it wasn't yet "active". But as it continued toward the inner solar system, the Sun's heat caused the ices on the comet to warm and sublimate (go directly from solid to gas). This activity is what gives comet's their characteristic comas and tails. Comet 67P was too small to produce a large observable tail in the popular sense, but Rosetta go a great look at its many outgassing events. (Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA)


September 30, 2016: Rosetta took a few last photos during its final approach. This is from roughly 16 km above the surface, captured overnight (at least for this New Yorker). (Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA)


September 30, 2016: A collage of images of Rosetta's targeting landing site as it continued to descend. (Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA)


September 30, 2016: Rosetta's final photograph. Scientists estimate this is approximately 20 meters above the surface. (Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA)

There's a sign at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory that reads "Dare Mighty Things". I always think of that when celebrating amazing feats like Rosetta. Go big or go home. Rosetta went big and now its at rest in its new home, riding through the Solar System on what is probably the best roller coaster ever.

Summer Ash is the Director of Outreach for Columbia University’s Department of Astronomy. Having been both a rocket scientist and a radio astronomer, she’s now harnessing her powers for science communication. She is the "In-House Astrophysicist" for The Rachel Maddow Show and has written for The AtlanticScientific American, Slate, and Nautilus Magazine. She tweets as @Summer_Ash and is also one-half of Startorialist.


Filed under: astronomy clothes comet cosmos exploration little prince petit atlas petit prince rosetta comet rosetta landing science science life space universe