Rosetta, the first spacecraft to orbit a comet, is dead, setting down in a final embrace with its companion of the past two years.
Radio signals from Rosetta flatlined at 7:19 a.m. Eastern after it did a soft belly-flop onto Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko at a speed of two miles per hour, slower than the average walk.
For the last few minutes, people at the European Space Operations Center in Darmstadt, Germany, watched their computer screens mostly in silence, but with some nervous chatter. When the radio signals ceased, they applauded and hugged in a celebration that was part joyous, part somber.
“This is it,” said Patrick Martin, the mission manager. “I can announce the full success of this historic descent of Rosetta toward 67P, and I declare the primary mission operations ended for Rosetta.”
Before Rosetta went silent, it collected and sent back one last batch of data and images, including some very close-up shots of the comet’s surface.
The last photograph was taken at a height of 167 feet and was blurry because the camera was designed for viewing from a distance, not close up.
The spacecraft’s 12-year journey — it took a decade to get there — concluded with quite a few firsts, and quite a few fans.
Comets are frozen remnants that hold secrets about the early solar system, and Rosetta was the first spacecraft to do more than just whiz by one. Comet 67P, which probably formed outside of Neptune, was one of the few with an orbit that could be matched by a spacecraft.
Two years of observation have revealed a dormant comet coming to life as it neared the sun and heated up, shooting geysers of dust and gas off its surface. Scientists learned that its shape, resembling a rubber duck, most likely occurred when two comets bumped into each other at a low velocity and stuck together.