Roma 12 November 2014
The European space exploration mission Rosetta has finally reached its goal. An epoch-making event, because for the first time in the history, humanity will be able to decipher the secrets of the origins and development of our solar system: the nucleus of a comet can finally be analysed “on-site”, thanks to the cutting-edge technology developed by the Finmeccanica Group.
The components of the Rosetta probe separated, and - on 12 November at 08:35 (GMT) – the Lander Philae left the Orbiter to begin its slow descent toward the comet 67P/Churymov-Gerasimenko. The actual “comet-ing” took place seven hours later (at 16:03, GMT) initially at the site identified last September by the on-board instrumentation. The landing site is named “Agilkia”, after the island on the Nile where the temple of Isis was rebuilt in the ‘seventies after being relocated from its original site on the island of Philae (later submerged by the waters of the Aswan dam), which in turn lent its name to the Lander. Now the real work begins: the analysis of the comet’s core, made up of cosmic dust, ice and frozen gas, which will certainly offer some incredible new insights into the origins of the Solar System.
Launched by the ESA (the European Space Agency) in 2004, the Rosetta mission is a scientific mission planned to take 10 years, a voyage of 7.1 billion kilometres in a hostile environment and with great expectations for incredible scientific discoveries. The mission’s name is a clear reference to the stone kept at the British Museum in London that allowed French archaeologist Jean-François Champollion to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs. In very much the same way, the European probe will help scientist to decipher many of the secrets of comets, the Solar System’s most ancient heavenly bodies that formed at the system’s very birth and are made of the same material that later formed the planets.
Rosetta’s on-board instrumentation will allow it to study the comet’s surface, its composition and temperature distribution, the nature of the gases and dust emitted by the core and their interaction with the solar wind. Finmeccanica contributed greatly to the mission through its Group companies active in the aerospace sector: Selex ES and the joint-ventures Telespazio and Thales Alenia Space.
Thales Alenia Space was the mission’s major contractor, under the prime contractor Airbus Defence and Space, for the assembly and testing of the entire probe and for the launch campaign, for which the company also developed and provided a great deal of the electrical and mechanical ground support equipment. Thales Alenia Space also designed and built the probe’s special Deep Space Transponder, operating in S and X band: an extremely innovative instrument essential for maintaining the link between the probe and Earth, and which is actually considered the reference platform for future interplanetary missions.
Telespazio, through its subsidiary Telespazio VEGA Deutschland, designed and realised the mission planning system and control centre for the ESOC (the European Space Operations Centre), as well as the real-time probe simulator that has continued to support mission control during the various phases of the mission. Experts from Telespazio form part of the ESA operations team managing Rosetta as it approaches and orbits the comet, as well as DLR (German Space Agency) team following the trajectory of the lander Philae (named after the place where an obelisk fundamental for interpreting the Rosetta stone was discovered), with responsibility for the technical management of the design and the laboratory the lander was built in. Telespazio VEGA Deutschland also handles the general and technical management activities linked with the Philae mission, thus contributing to the final phases of this space adventure.
Finmeccanica-Selex ES likewise played a central role, providing Rosetta with a series of sophisticated instruments. The data processed by the A-STR independent star tracking system was essential for waking the probe up after its ten year hibernation in deep space, allowing it to calculate its exact position and point its antenna correctly toward Earth to send the wake-up signal to the mission operators. The NAV-CAM, the space navigation camera supplied by Finmeccanica Selex ES and installed on the probe, has also continued to transmit high definition images, like the ones taken during the flypast of the asteroids Steins and Lutetia, and the close encounter” with 67P itself. Finmeccanica-Selex ES also built the probe’s 14 metres long photovoltaic panels, the largest ever produced for an ESA mission, to power Rosetta and allow it to operate in increasingly hostile conditions as it draws closer to the Sun. The lander Philae is fitted with a smaller version of this same equipment.
The other instruments installed on the probe by Finmeccanica-Selex ES include the VIRTIS – Visible and Infrared Thermal Imaging Spectrometer – to measure the surface temperature of the comet, and which also made it possible to determine the possible landing sites for the Lander, and the GIADA – Grain Impact Analyser and Dust Accumulator – which has analysed the dust and particles in the comet’s coma, measuring both physical and dynamic properties. Now that Philae has landed on the comet, the SD2 (Sample Drill & Distribution) will come into operation, a sophisticated system for drilling and distributing samples of the comet, which will drill up to 20 cm into the nucleus of 67P.
Rosetta will continue to follow the comet on its solar trajectory until it reaches its closest point to the Sun in August 2015, and then begins to move away. The mission is scheduled to end this December, but Rosetta could continue on its voyage. But that will be another story.