Can’t think of a better way of saying this, really…
WOOHOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! ROSETTA IS AWAKE!!!!!!!! GET IN THERE!!!!!
…but boy that was a tense old time, waiting to hear!
Let’s go back a bit. The “fun” began at 10am UK time this morning, when Rosetta was due to wake up from her long hibernation, and I must confess that even though I knew there’d be no news from Rosetta until many hours later, after 5.30pm my time in fact, at 10am I couldn’t help looking at one of the clocks at work and sending Rosetta silent but heartfelt good wishes. When I finally got home I did what countless thousands of other people around the world were doing – I sat down at my computer and started watching the live streaming coverage of Rosetta’s wake up from ESA. And here I have to say that I think the whole ESA/Rosetta team did a wonderful job with that, and have done with the Rosetta mission so far. Speaking as someone who can remember when ESA’s Outreach efforts were grudging and poor at best, and rubbish at worst, the way ESA has promoted Rosetta and got the public involved in the mission has been fantastic. Whoever put forward the “Wake Up Rosetta!” theme, and had the idea of asking people to send in their video messages was a genius and deserves ESA’s Order of Merit, or whatever they have in the way of honours, because that has led to the public really engaging with the mission, investing in it emotionally and, best of all, feeling personally involved with it.
This bodes very well for the future, not just for the Rosetta mission but for ESA itself, too. I really do think that ESA finally “gets” the importance of Outreach now, and that the bad old, bang-your-heads-on-a-brick-wall days of ESA hording its spacecraft images like Smaug hording gold are gone. Now ESA does webcasts, has blogs, uses Twitter and Facebook every bit as effectively as NASA does, and it’s wonderful, it really is. Of course, the true test of this new ESA will come when Rosetta reaches its comet target and starts taking pictures… how quickly they’ll be released, how many are released, and how much access the public has to raw images will be The Test. But that’s in the future. For now let’s just celebrate today’s Rosetta success..!
So, this afternoon, having got back from work I sat here, watching my PC, enjoying the build up. There were great interviews with mission scientists to listen to, which helped pass the time, but the clock was – literally – ticking. There was no chance of hearing anything from Rosetta until 5.30 at the earliest, so all we could do was wait. We? Yes, I had my usual company, who was intently keeping an eye on the goings on at ESOC too…
So, 5.00 came… and went… and as the minutes passed my Twitter feed began to fill up with Rosetta-related Tweets as all my equally-nervous space friends and fellow Twitterers began to share their hopes, thoughts and fears. 5.15… 5.20… 5.25…
5.30. This was it. Time for Rosetta to phone home…
Of course, 5.30 was just the START of the FIRST period it was going to be possible to hear from Rosetta, so really we should all have just sat back and waited patiently. Haha! Space enthusiasts? Patient? Never! As soon as 5.30 came we all leaned forwards in our seats, stared hard into our screens, and started to wonder when the signal would come. We knew that that signal was going to appear as a sharp vertical spike on a graph, so when that graph appeared on screen for the first time our hearts all jolted. Any second now, we told ourselves, that graph is going to kick…
5.35… 5.40… 5.45… and the line wobbled, and wibbled, but no spike appeared. We all watched and waited, waited and watched, as the techs and managers in the control room started to rock backwards and forwards in their seats, or get up and pace, or scoot across the floor in their seats…
5.50… 5.55… 6.00…
– and then, suddenly, there it was! A spike!!
YES!!! Rosetta was awake!!!
Phew! Twitter lit up with Tweets of relief, Tweets congratulating ESA and Rosetta itself, it was party time! And all because, out there, way, way out there, after turning off its alarm clock, swinging its legs out of bed and rubbing its gritty eyes, a robotic spacecraft had picked up the phone to chirrup and churp a yawny message back home saying “Ok, ok, I’m awake… where’s the coffee?”
…phew. I think that my heart rate has fallen back to normal again by now, but for a while back there, around 6pm, I must admit I was starting to get a bit twitchy; Rosetta really made us sweat before letting us know she was alive. Talk about a diva!
I’m a bit wrung out after it all but I imagine the Rosetta team scientists are all absolutely shattered now, after a very, very long day. But I wonder when it will really hit them, though? I wonder when they’ll have that dizzy, sphincter-tightening “Oh…****!” moment when they realise that they now it’s real. Now they have to do this. Now they have only a few months keft until Rosetta reaches its comet target and starts to study it.
So, what’s next?
Well, ESA explained that in a press release after today’s events:
Essential health checks on the spacecraft must be completed. Then the eleven instruments on the orbiter and ten on the lander will be turned on and prepared for studying Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.
“We have a busy few months ahead preparing the spacecraft and its instruments for the operational challenges demanded by a lengthy, close-up study of a comet that, until we get there, we know very little about,” says Andrea Accomazzo, ESA’s Rosetta operations manager.
Rosetta’s first images of 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko are expected in May, when the spacecraft is still 2 million km from its target. Towards the end of May, the spacecraft will execute a major manoeuvre to line up for its critical rendezvous with the comet in August.
After rendezvous, Rosetta will start with two months of extensive mapping of the comet’s surface, and will also make important measurements of the comet’s gravity, mass and shape, and assess its gaseous, dust-laden atmosphere, or coma. The orbiter will also probe the plasma environment and analyse how it interacts with the Sun’s outer atmosphere, the solar wind.
Using these data, scientists will choose a landing site for the mission’s 100 kg Philae probe. The landing is currently scheduled for 11 November and will be the first time that a landing on a comet has ever been attempted.
In fact, given the almost negligible gravity of the comet’s 4 km-wide nucleus, Philae will have to use ice screws and harpoons to stop it from rebounding back into space after touchdown.
Among its wide range of scientific measurements, Philae will send back a panorama of its surroundings, as well as very high-resolution pictures of the surface. It will also perform an on-the-spot analysis of the composition of the ices and organic material, including drilling down to 23 cm below the surface and feeding samples to Philae’s on-board laboratory for analysis.
The focus of the mission will then move to the ‘escort’ phase, during which Rosetta will stay alongside the comet as it moves closer to the Sun, monitoring the ever-changing conditions on the surface as the comet warms up and its ices sublimate.
The comet will reach its closest distance to the Sun on 13 August 2015 at about 185 million km, roughly between the orbits of Earth and Mars. Rosetta will follow the comet throughout the remainder of 2015, as it heads away from the Sun and activity begins to subside.
It’s now almost midnight here in the UK – I started writing this post hours ago, but just getting around to finishing it now – and I’ve been thinking about the significance of this mission. To truly appreciate that tho, you need to think about how we got here today. Rosetta was launched ten years ago – TEN YEARS – and has, I believe, travelled around half a BILLION kilometres since then. Even before today it had taken gorgeous images of Earth and Mars. When it “did a Ripley” and went into hibernation, around three years ago, Rosetta was taking a huge gamble. What if its software was corrupted by a solar flare, or some piece of hardware failed while it was asleep? What if a micrometeorite hit it, damaging vital components or even sending it off course? It might never wake up, but would continue on its way in silence, a zombie spacecraft, and today there would have been no spike, no fists punching the air, no celebrations. Nothing.
This is, I think, the mission that will really make ESA. Rosetta is now, thanks to that stroke-of-genius “Wake Up Rosetta” campaign, a high profile mission which has captured the imagination of millions. Come August, when the probe reaches its target, public and media interest will rocket, and on the day the Philae lander detaches and drops to the surface it’s going to go absolutely crazy. It’ll be like a European Moon landing…
…which is exactly what comet expert (and friend of this blog) Nick Howes was thinking too, and he wrote about it very eloquently in a post on Facebook, which he has kindly given me permission to reproduce here. Nick wrote:
If you want analogies for ESA and NASA, it’s no understatement in terms of epicness to compare what they are aiming to do with the Apollo program. The Rosetta mission is complex, dangerous, ambitious and technically staggeringly challenging.. but for the analogy to continue, today I see as Apollo 7… first steps in to the unknown, when they reach orbit around 67P, think of it like Apollo 8, great and epic, and game changing stuff, but the best yet to come.
Lowering to the surface will be Apollo 10, and then touchdown will be 11… Anyone who knows how passionate I am about Apollo will know this is not a light hearted statement, I truly believe ESA are about to enter true global epic status in the minds of everyone if they pull this mission off.
So long and for so many years, ESA have played second fiddle to NASA in the public perception… but they are truly great, and with great scientists, and instruments on many outstanding missions, and with projects like Giotto and Huygens proved they are staggeringly good at doing next to the impossible. But this mission is special, truly special, and I think will capture the imagination of the public in a way no other mission ever has.
I think Nick has it bang on there. In the public’s mind, space = Apollo, Mars Rovers, Hubble, space shuttle, Saturn 5 = NASA. ESA? Er… oh, yeah, the Europeans. They launch satellites on that big rocket from the jungle, don’t they? And occasionally fly scientists to the space station.
Rosetta will change that perception. The public are as fascinated by comets as ever, as the recent feeding frenzy over Comet ISON showed. So the world will be watching the Philae landing in November. After being in NASA’s shadow all these years, it will be ESA’s chance to shine.
Just watch them grasp it with both hands.