The Rosetta mission that launched in 2004 came to its end on Friday, landing on a comet and shutting down. The end of the project was a historic moment for the European Space Agency (ESA), who had poured endless hours into making Rosetta a success with the help of NASA and a consortium of other local space agencies. Emotions ran high at the European Space Operations Center in Darmstadt, Germany, where the team gathered to witness the spacecraft’s final moments.
“Already the trip there was a masterpiece of technology and an adventure,” said Andrea Accomazzo, ESA’s Rosetta flight operations director, on the agency’s live stream. “This is the most fantastic mission ever.”
During its nearly five billion mile journey, Rosetta has provided vital scientific insights into what makes a comet tick. It became the first spacecraft to orbit around a comet when it arrived at its destination in August 2014. Three months later, the spacecraft deployed the Philae lander that touched down on the object and beamed back the first ever images of a comet surface.
“This is an achievement, not only for ESA, but for mankind,” said Accomazzo. “If we want to protect our planet from asteroids, this is what we have to do.”
Unfortunately, as time went on, the spacecraft began to move too far away from the sun, past the orbit of Jupiter, to power its onboard instruments. On Friday, Rosetta approached the comet at a very slow speed of 90 centimeters per second, half the speed of walking pace. When Rosetta touched down on the comet it had been observing for the past two years, it shut off permanently, moments after beaming back close-up images of its surface.
The data Rosetta has gathered during its journey has shown scientists how comets change as they move closer and further away from the sun. It’s also explained more about the development of the solar system and how comets may have played a role.
“Today, I think we got out more of this mission than we ever thought,” said Gerhard Schwehm, former Rosetta mission manager.Photos via NASA/UStream, Getty Images / Handout