Last month, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft made headlines and history as it transmitted back images of Saturn unlike anything any earthling had seen before. As the craft plummeted down into Saturn’s gaseous interior, past its telltale ring system and potentially life-inhabited moons, it kept snapping photos, offering us a never-before-seen glimpse into existence around the gas giant.
However, almost one year prior, another space fairing mission made a similarly dramatic plunge into the heavenly body it had been tasked with studying: the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission.
Like Cassini, Rosetta had already lived a long and illustrious life in space when its mission came to an end. Ten years into its tenure as a space-fairing craft, Rosetta started following Comet 67P, a rock that bares a subtle resemblance to a massive rubber ducky. It spent the following two years gathering data and photographs of the comet, until September 30th, 2016, when it plunged down into the space rock’s surface.
Also like Cassini, Rosetta continued to snap photos all the way down, but the last shot didn’t come through as complete before the craft collided with the rock’s surface… that is, until researchers at the ESA were able to find portions of the missing data packets just recently.
“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,” said Holger Sierks, principal investigator for the OSIRIS camera at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Göttingen, Germany.
“Later, we found a few telemetry packets on our server and thought, wow, that could be another image.”
Three of six full packets of the data making up the last image Rosetta was to send were received at the time, but the other three, which had been broken up into telemetry packets to be transmitted back to Earth, didn’t arrive last September. Because less than half of the data required to form the image didn’t make it back, the automatic imaging processing software never kicked in, leaving the data that was received as nothing but telemetry.
Once the ESA’s team discovered the packets, they were able to put them together into a slightly grainy image of Comet 67P right before impact, giving us a never before seen view of the surface of the rocky body from only about 60 feet away. The image, which depicts approximately ten square feet of the comet’s surface, doesn’t reveal anything of scientific note, but does offer a sentimental glimpse of what was about to be the storied probe’s final resting place.
This photo shows a rendering of Rosetta above a real shot it sent back from about 1,000 feet above the surface of the comet. The red box indicates the ten foot square shown in the final photo.
And here is a larger breakdown of the shown area, as compared to the overall surface of the comet.
Images courtesy of the European Space Agency