On September 30, 2016, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta probe ended its 12-year mission by smashing into comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which it had orbited for two years. During that final dive, the spacecraft took detailed images of the comet’s surface. Now, a year later, workers examining the last transmissions from Rosetta have found one last image from the probe, reports the Associated Press.
According to a press release from the ESA, Rosetta sent each of its images back to Earth in several telemetry packets, which was then automatically assembled into a high-resolution picture. But for its last image, Rosetta was only able to transmit 53 percent of the data, so the software did not process the final photo.
“The last complete image transmitted from Rosetta was the final one that we saw arriving back on Earth in one piece moments before the touchdown at Sais [impact site],” Holger Sierks at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Göttingen, Germany, says in the press release. “Later, we found a few telemetry packets on our server and thought, wow, that could be another image.”
It was indeed another final image, capturing nearly 11 square feet of the comet's surface. But unlike the earlier crisp Rosetta images, the latest image is blurry.
Even so, the discovery of the new image caused researchers to revise the estimates for Rosetta’s previous final image, which they believed was snapped using the OSIRIS wide-angle camera roughly 66 feet above the comet’s surface. Now they believe that photo was taken between 76 and 86 feet above the ground while the final image was taken between 59 and 69 feet above the ground.
The final image isn’t the only photo from Rosetta in the news. Earlier this week, the ESA released a set of 210 images taken from July 2014 to September 2016 illustrating the probe’s initial approach to the comet and its journey around the space rock until its final descent.
Besides some awesome photos, the Rosetta mission delivered the first up-close views and data from a comet. The probe examined 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko using 11 instruments while its companion Philae lander plopped down on the comet in November 2014, though a tricky landing limited Philae's transmissions back to Earth. Rosetta imaged the little probe right before the end of the mission in September 2016.
“Rosetta has completely changed our picture of comets,” Rosetta scientist Eberhard Grün of the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics in Heidelberg, Germany, said in a press release last year. “Previously, they were pictured as dirty ice balls – or, as some prefer, icy dust balls – but now we know them, or at least this one, to be geologically complex worlds where a myriad of processes are at work creating the incredible surface structure and activity of the comet.”
One of the biggest revelations, reports Nancy Atkinson at Space.com, is that the comet may be producing molecular oxygen in deep space, an idea that changes the way researchers understand the formation of the universe the development of life on Earth.