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Rosetta space mission ends: Queen’s comet expert reflects on successes

29/09/2016

Professor Alan Fitzsimmons
Astrophysics Research Centre, School of Mathematics and Physics

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The Rosetta space mission, which has been supported by scientists at Queen’s University Belfast, will end on Friday 30 September when the spacecraft will touchdown on the comet it has travelled alongside for more than 1.3 billion miles.

The European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft will land near a large pit on the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko – the same comet onto which it famously delivered the Philae lander in November 2014.

Back on Earth, astronomers at Queen’s University Belfast have been supporting the mission by using the world’s largest telescopes to study the comet hundreds of millions of miles away. Members of the solar system team at Queen’s will explain their work at the Science Uncovered event at the Ulster Museum on Friday 30 September.

Rosetta’s achievements

Professor Alan Fitzsimmons from Queen’s Astrophysics Research Centre will discuss the Rosetta mission on The Sky at Night on BBC4 on Sunday 2 October. He said: “While it will be sad to finally see the end of the mission, Rosetta’s landing also provides an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of everyone involved in this groundbreaking mission.

"On 12 November 2014, Rosetta secured its place in the history books when it sent the Philae lander onto the surface – the first ever spacecraft to land on a comet. Rosetta and Philae have revolutionised our understanding of comets and their birthplace -the solar nebula from which the Earth formed 4.6 billion years ago.

"Throughout this mission, Rosetta has viewed in unprecedented detail the changing surface of the comet and the material it has released. Among the many findings was the discovery of hard ice on the surface, the first probing of a comet interior by radar, and the detection of amino acids in a comet."

International collaboration

Queen’s astronomers have been part of an international team who used almost all large telescopes on Earth, from the Very Large Telescope in Chile to the William Herschel Telescope in the Canary Islands.

Queen’s Astrophysics PhD student Andrew McNeil, from Ballyclare obtained some of the telescope images. He said: “Having watched the comet capture the public’s attention when Philae landed, it was remarkable to see this comet first-hand in our own observations. Even at this distance, there is so much to see from the Earth, although I would recommend to anyone with an interest in the Rosetta mission, or in space science, to view the incredibly detailed images captured by Rosetta on the ESA Rosetta Blog."

Improve our understanding of our Solar system

Professor Fitzsimmons continued: “Although Rosetta will be put down as gently as possible on the surface of the comet, it was not designed to land and mission scientists will lose contact with the spacecraft at the moment of touchdown.

“It will continue to send information until the final seconds, but the work won’t end then. We still have months and years of working through all the data to uncover everything we can.

“The incredible detail and images provided by Rosetta will enable us to extend our knowledge and improve our understanding of the Solar system and the many other comets we have studied over the years.”

Media inquiries to Anne-Marie Clarke (Mon-Wed) and Michelle Cassidy (Thur-Fri) at Queen’s University Communications Office T: +44 (0)28 9097 5310 E: comms.officer@qub.ac.uk

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