Scientists To Bid A Bittersweet Farewell To Rosetta, The Comet Chaser : The Two-Way To cap its 12-year scientific voyage, the Rosetta spacecraft will take a final plunge Friday. Scientists will signal Rosetta to crash into the surface of a comet — and gather data all the way down.
NPR logo

Scientists To Bid A Bittersweet Farewell To Rosetta, The Comet Chaser

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/495797996/495965278" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Scientists To Bid A Bittersweet Farewell To Rosetta, The Comet Chaser

Scientists To Bid A Bittersweet Farewell To Rosetta, The Comet Chaser

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/495797996/495965278" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The icy surface of a comet will soon get smacked by a spacecraft named Rosetta. Rosetta has been orbiting the comet for more than two years. And as NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports, this historic mission is about to come to a dramatic end.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Matt Taylor is the mission's project scientist at the European Space Agency, and he doesn't know how he'll feel tomorrow morning when Rosetta plunges down to the comet.

MATT TAYLOR: There's mixed emotions here. You know, it's people who have invested their lives and their mentality I think as well, their psychology on this mission.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Previous missions just flew by comets quickly. But in the 1980s, researchers began dreaming of doing an in-depth study by traveling along with one of these cosmic ice balls. Rosetta launched in 2004. It traveled for 10 years and about 4 billion miles to catch up with the comet. In 2014, it finally slipped into orbit.

TAYLOR: It was an adventure. It was doing something daring. It was doing something ridiculous, in fact. We're flying around a comet.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: A few months later, Rosetta achieved another historic first. It deployed a washing-machine-sized probe called Philae that touched down on the comet's surface.

(APPLAUSE)

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Controllers in Germany went crazy with joy, but then they realized that Philae's anchors had failed. Philae bounced a couple of times and ended up in some shadowy crevice that kept sunlight from its solar panels. Its exact resting place was only spotted a few weeks ago in a photo taken by Rosetta.

TAYLOR: Psychologically it was a great relief to have an unambiguous identification of the location of the lander.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The lander did live for a few days - long enough to gather unprecedented images and data. Paul Weissman is a mission scientist with the Planetary Science Institute.

PAUL WEISSMAN: You have to, you know, look at the glass as being half full not half empty. On the whole I think it was a tremendous success.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says comets are fascinating because they're the leftovers from the process that formed earth and the other planets, and they basically haven't changed in 4 and a half billion years.

WEISSMAN: Comets are the best preserved samples of solar system material from the origin.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: This particular comet is shaped sort of like a rubber duck. Rosetta's grand finale will put it in a freefall towards the duck's head. It will send back data and images in real time all the way down. Weissman says the end won't be a spectacular explosion. Rosetta will be going pretty slow - about the speed of a person walking.

WEISSMAN: Imagine yourself walking into a wall. It wouldn't damage you very much.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But the spacecraft will tilt. Its antenna will stop pointing at Earth, and Rosetta will go silent. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

The Two-Way

The Two-Way

About