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Rosetta's crucial burn as Sen speaks to mission's chief scientist

Paul Sutherland, Feature writer
Oct 30, 2014, 22:15 UTC

Sen—Europe’s Rosetta space probe made a crucial thruster-burn on 28 October to prepare for the landing of its piggyback probe Philae on 12 November on Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.

The vital manoeuvre lasted 82 seconds and pushed the European Space Agency probe out of a circular orbit 10km above the comet that it had been following since 15 October to study the comet closely.

But the burn, putting the probe on a new elliptical trajectory, was just the latest nail-biting moment for the team behind one of the most audacious missions ever in Solar System exploration. 

Sen caught up with ESA’s Rosetta project scientist, Dr Matt Taylor, for an exclusive interview. He is a lively character whose tattoos are as colourful as his Hawaiian shirt, and include one of the Rosetta probe itself!

We asked Matt, a Brit who studied at universities in Liverpool and London, how it felt to be at this stage in a mission that has already achieved so much.

He told us: “It feels like you’re on a train. We’ve gone through a rapid succession of decision points and analysis, and now we’re in the final part of this part of the journey. There’s not much we can do now. We’re not going to change something completely. We’ve made a decision, we’ve gone through the analysis, and we will land there!

“There will be another decision point shortly before the release of Philae where we say whether the orbiter is in the right place to do all this, and that will come very shortly before the 12th of November. But then that’s it, there is nothing more we can do. 

“It’s not a joystick operation, we have the guys doing the job to put us in the right place at the right time. They’re proving that, through and through, by getting us past the planets, getting us past the asteroids, getting us in and out of hibernation. 

“In fact during Rosetta’s exit from hibernation, when we were waiting for its signal, I was watching the guy who wrote the hibernation software and he was the most stressed there. You could see the smile when we came out of hibernation. I looked at him and I went, ‘Good job!’ All the code was fine.”

For Matt the stress is eased by the fact that so much has already been successful. He said: “This is the key thing. We have more data, and the best data, that has ever been taken at a comet already. And we will continue to do that regardless of what happens in November, we’ll have more impressive data than has ever been taken. 

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Rosetta project scientist Matt Taylor sporting one of his less colourful shirts. Image credit: ESA

“We have better resolution images of the comet already. They’ll get better, we’ll see the evolution of the comet, we’ll compare what we see now and have seen in recent months to what happens after August next year, when the comet is closest to the Sun. We’ll actually be able to measure visible changes on the comet. It’s mental.”

We asked how active the comet was expected to get as it is warmed by the Sun and shoots out more and more jets of dust and gas.

Matt told us: “The comet is not as active as, say, ISON or one of the sun-grazers, but one of the problems is that we are steering ourselves around an active body that is nothing like a planet or a moon. It’s trying to stop us doing science. It’s always pushing us away from the comet, but we want to get as close as possible. That’s what we do. That’s our bread and butter, deciding where we can be to make sure that we stay in an orbit.”

Does he have sleepless nights worrying about the landing?

He said: “I don’t have sleepless nights. I just have less sleep than is probably preferable because we’re working long hours now. It is a lot of time, and my family don’t see much of me any more. It’s tough on family but then they can see why. I’ve worked in ESA now for about nine years and Rosetta has something else. It’s got the technology, the exploration, the excitement of science. And my son tells me, ‘I want to be a scientist now, Dad!’

“He and my daughter came to a presentation I was giving for the public in the Netherlands and they were both helping me because my Dutch is terrible. And they were going. ‘Wow, actually Dad, you’re quite cool!’ So they are all interested in this.”

Matt added: “Rosetta is inspirational. This kind of activity—people sometime say, ‘oh, what a waste of money’, but no! If you can trigger one, two, ten, 15, a thousand minds to turn towards something that makes a difference, something that does something constructive, whether it be artistic or scientific, then that’s priceless. You can’t put a price on it.”

In other Rosetta news this week, ESA revealed that one of its instruments, the COmetary Secondary Ion Mass Analyser (COSIMA), has detected its first dust grains. It blasted one, nicknamed Boris, with ions and found it contains sodium and magnesium.

A video shows the changing path that Rosetta is taking as it attempts to study and land on Comet 67P. Credit: ESA