Rosetta the comet-chasing spacecraft wakes up

The Guardian reports: In 2004, the European Space Agency launched the Rosetta probe on an audacious mission to chase down a comet and place a robot on its surface. For nearly three years Rosetta had been hurtling through space in a state of hibernation. On Monday, it awoke.

The radio signal from Rosetta came from 800m kilometres away, a distance made hardly more conceivable by its proximity to Jupiter. The signal appeared on a computer screen as a tremulous green spike, but it meant the world – perhaps the solar system – to the scientists and engineers gathered at European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt.

In a time when every spacecraft worth its salt has a Twitter account, the inevitable message followed from @Esa_Rosetta. It was brief and joyful: “Hello, world!”.

Speaking to the assembled crowd at Darmstadt, Matt Taylor, project scientist on the Rosetta mission, said: “Now it’s up to us to do the work we’ve promised to do.”

Just 10 minutes before he’d been facing an uncertain future career. If the spacecraft had not woken up, there would be no science to do and the role of project scientist would have been redundant.

The comet hunter had been woken by an internal alarm clock at 10am UK time but only after several hours of warming up its instruments and orientating towards Earth could it send a message home.

In the event, the missive was late. Taylor had been hiding his nerves well, even joking about the wait on Twitter but when the clock passed 19:00CET, making the signal at least 15 minutes late, the mood changed. ESA scientists and engineers started rocking on their heels, clutching their arms around themselves, and stopping the banter than had helped pass the time. Taylor himself sat down, and seemed to withdraw.

Then the flood of relief when the blip on the graph appeared. “I told you it would work,” said Taylor with a grin.

The successful rousing of the distant probe marks a crucial milestone in a mission that is more spectacular and ambitious than any the European Space Agency has conceived. The €1bn, car-sized spacecraft will now close in on a comet, orbit around it, and send down a lander, called Philae, the first time such a feat has been attempted.

The comet, 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, is 4km wide, or roughly the size of Mont Blanc. That is big enough to study, but too measly to have a gravitational field strong enough to hold the lander in place. Instead, the box of sensors on legs will latch on to the comet by firing an explosive harpoon the moment it lands, and twisting ice screws into its surface.

To my mind, the long-standing belief that comets may have had a role in the origin of life on Earth seems even more speculative than Jeremy England’s idea that it could have arisen as a result of physical processes originating on this planet’s surface.

As much as anything, what seems so extraordinary about a project such as Rosetta is its accomplishment as a feat of navigation (assuming that it does in fact make its planned rendezvous with the comet). It’s like aiming an arrow at a speck of dust on a moving target in the dark.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email