In Depth

Rosetta: 'Rock and roll' space mission crashes to an end

Spacecraft touches down on comet 67P as European Space Agency says goodbye to 20-year project

Once described as the "sexiest, most fantastic mission there's ever been", the Rosetta spacecraft has gone out in a blaze of glory, ending its mission with a distinctly soft landing on comet 67P.

It touched down on its chosen target at around 12.20pm BST.

What was Rosetta?

Named after the Rosetta Stone, the spacecraft was launched by the European Space Agency (ESA) in 2004. It was the first spacecraft ever to orbit a comet, travelling around 67P, a duck-shaped piece of dust, ice and rock situated 252 miles from Earth.

In another historical first, Rosetta's tiny robotic probe, Philae, landed on 67P in August 2014, an achievement celebrated across the continent. However, contact was lost on 9 July last year and Rosetta later sent back an image of the probe lying on its side in a deep crack in the shadow of a cliff.

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Since then, Rosetta has been studying comet 67P in order to better understand how the Earth and life upon it was formed and where the water in our oceans came from.

Why did Rosetta have to crash?

The simple answer is, it didn't. Rosetta could have been left to drift into the universe as comet 67P headed further away from the Sun and the craft's solar panels lost power. But the mission's end would have then been something of a drawn out process.

Andrea Accomazzo, ESA's spacecraft operations manager, told The Guardian: "We could have abandoned it in space or let it bounce off the comet and just switched it off. It wouldn't have created any problem... Landing it is more a psychological thing."

"In other words: it's about closure," says The Verge. "Some of the scientists involved in Rosetta have been working on the project for nearly 20 years."

What has the significance of Rosetta been?

"Rosetta has been comparable to the moon landing," said Accomazzo. "It's that order of magnitude. As a child, I could only have dreamt something like this. It's interesting to see how many emotions landing on a comet still triggers in very many people."

As well as allowing scientists to understand the building blocks of life on the comet and thereby also the origins of the solar system and Earth, the mission has also reignited people's interest in the universe and space travel.

"Rosetta was rock and roll. It turned everything up to 11," said British astrophysicist Matt Taylor.

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