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article imageRosetta spacecraft bound for comet tomb

By MariĆ«tte Le Roux (AFP)     Sep 29, 2016 in Science

Europe's Rosetta spacecraft was heading Friday for a mission-ending crash into the comet it has stalked for two years, a dramatic conclusion to a 12-year odyssey to demystify our Solar System's origins.

Sent by ground controllers on a leisurely, 14-hour freefall, the space pioneer was engaged in a last-gasp spurt of science-gathering on the 19-kilometre (12-mile) journey to its icy comet tomb.

The moment of impact will be 1038 GMT, give or take two minutes, the European Space Agency said after overnight measurements allowed it to narrow down the expected time of death.

Confirmation will arrive 40 minutes later, the time it takes for a message to travel between Rosetta and Earth, when the spacecraft's signal fades from ground controllers' computer screens.

"Everything is going according to plan," project scientist Matt Taylor told AFP hours before the impending end.

Rosetta: final impact
Rosetta: final impact
Laurence SAUBADU, Alain BOMMENEL, Sophie RAMIS, AFP/File

The craft has been sending back close-up shots of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, and "we're seeing some really nice images," he said.

"We just wait for the end now."

During its descent, Rosetta was also meant to sniff the comet's gassy coma, or halo, from closer than ever before, measure its temperature and gravity, and peer into mysterious pits dotting the landscape for hints as to what the comet's interior might look like.

Rosetta was commanded on Thursday night to exit comet orbit and join long-spent robot lander Philae on 67P for a never-ending journey around the Sun.

With the comet zipping through space at a speed of over 14 kilometres (nine miles) per second, it was programmed to make a "controlled impact" at human walking speed, about 90 cm (35 inches) per second.

Mission scientists expect it will bounce and tumble about before settling -- but Rosetta's exact fate will never be known as it was instructed to switch off on first impact.

The comet chaser was never designed to land.

- Bittersweet -

"You can see some of the flight control team, the people who work here in mission control, are beginning to get more emotional because they can see the end," Taylor said.

"People who work on mission control, their entire existence is based on making sure the spacecraft stays healthy, so they have to switch their head round. It's a 180-degree turn, now you're going to kill the spacecraft."

Flight operations director Andrea Accomazzo, working on Rosetta for nearly 20 years, confessed "of course there is a bit of sadness" after a "long, long" investment predating his marriage and children.

"You are going to miss it. But OK, life goes on," he shrugged.

For the scientists who will sift through the data for years, possibly decades, to come, this is not the end, however.

"It's a bittersweet thing," said Taylor. "There is something about the attachment, there's something about that spacecraft being there. I will feel a sense of loss, surely."

The first-ever mission to orbit and land on a comet was approved in 1993 to explore the birth of our Solar System 4.6 billion years ago.

Rosetta and lander probe Philae travelled more than six billion kilometres over 10 years to reach 67P in August 2014.

Philae was released onto the comet surface in November of that year, bouncing several times, then gathering 60 hours of on-site data which it sent home before entering standby mode.

Comets like 67P are thought to contain primordial material preserved in a dark space deep freeze.

Insights gleaned from the 1.4-billion-euro ($1.5-billion) project have shown that comets crashing into an early Earth may well have brought amino acids, the building blocks of life.

Comets of 67P's type, however, certainly did not bring water, scientists have concluded.

"Scientists are like children: they dream without limits. There is nothing better than making dreams of children become a reality," Accomazzo told AFP.

"This is the feeling we have. For me today is mission accomplished."

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