Here’s a little film I did for The Sky at Night (BBC4) all about How to Make a Comet. I actually made a comet in a lab, so much fun!
The Open University asked me to interview some of our Rosetta scientists about the mission and here’s the video.
On November 12th the Rosetta Philae lander is due to land on the surface of a comet. As a space scientist working with those who have instruments on board, I can’t wait. So, I met up with some of the Rosetta scientists at The Open University to ask them the top 5 questions I’m always being asked about the Rosetta mission.
Why bother to go to a comet?
I chatted to Ian Wright to find out more.
“We want to go because it’s there. It’s an object in our astronomical backyard and we want to know what it looks like and what it’s made of. We also want to know whether the water in a comet has a relationship with the water on Earth. If it does then we want to study the organics in the comet to know something about the organics that were brought to the surface of the early Earth.”
Why does the lander have harpoons?
One of the things about this landing is that it will be nothing like any landing to date on a planet or a moon. I chatted to Andrew Morse to find out more about why Rosetta needs harpoons.
“There are two harpoons on board and this is the first time they’ve been used in space. The gravity on a comet is so low that they’re needed to attach the lander to the comet but they’re not just required for the landing. The harpoons are also needed throughout the mission because as the comet becomes active, gases coming off the comet will act to push the lander away so they keep it firmly attached throughout the whole of the mission.”
Why is there an oven on board?
Simon Sheridan chatted to me about why Philae needs ovens.
“There are a number of ovens onboard the instrument, located behind the drill on a carousel. We need ovens because the Open University’s instrument, Ptolemy, is a mass spectrometer and we need to analyse the gases in the comet so we take the solid cometary material, pop it in the oven and heat it up to get the gases off that to analyse. The Ptolemy instrument is located inside the lander and the gases from the oven reach it via a pipe.”
But what if it crashes on landing?
The landing of the Rosetta Philae spacecraft is risky and there is the potential for a crash. But what would happen in these circumstances. I chatted to Geraint Morgan to find out more.
“The instruments including Ptolemy are already pre-programmed so will sniff the comet whatever happens, whichever way we land. Ptolemy is a miniature version of a lab instrument we have at the Open University and has similar functionality. We’ve been applying the knowledge we’ve developed with Ptolemy to several challenges back here on Earth including healthcare, safety equipment and also even measuring the quality of our drinking water.”
Could this mission save the world?
This could really seem like an over-claim. But is it? We only have to think back to the demise of the dinosaurs that were most likely wiped out by a comet colliding with the Earth. I went to meet Monica Grady to get her opinion.
“This mission couldn’t directly save the Earth but it could indirectly. Comets travel through the inner Solar System all the time. Some of them travel very near to the Earth and have even hit the Earth in the past. The more we know about comets; their composition, how tough they are, how easily they break up, the better it is so we can understand more about deflecting them away from the Earth. It might sound like science fiction but if the choice is between science fiction and global devastation because a comet hits then what choice do we have?”
All that’s left to say is good luck to all the Rosetta scientists on November 12th.
Why Rosetta is the greatest space mission of our lifetime
By Natalie Starkey, The Open University
With only a week to go before the Rosetta spacecraft drops its Philae lander onto the surface of comet 67P, I wonder whether there will be another space mission in my lifetime that is so inspiring. Part of what has been so impressive is the length of time this mission has taken to finally get to the comet – 20 years since planning began (when I was still in high school), ten years since launch (when I was studying for my first degree). I feel very lucky that I am now employed as a space scientist at a time when all this work is coming to fruition.
Rosetta has now reached the bizarrely shaped rubber-duck comet and it has spent three months mapping its surface in the hope of finding a suitable spot to place its Philae lander. This is a huge feat in itself. It is the first time a spacecraft has entered into orbit around a comet, which is a celestial body with almost no gravity.
The images Rosetta has sent back have allowed us to learn so much about this never-before-seen world. The European Space Agency (ESA) can already be proud of its achievements so far.
The Philae lander – packed with a science laboratory, harpoons and even ovens – gives the ESA a chance to do more. The hope is that Philae will help answer some of the most basic questions about our existence.
The original ambition for Rosetta was for it to be a sample-return mission: land on a comet and bring back samples to analyse on Earth. But the crippling costs of achieving this meant that it had to be scaled back: how about we just land on a speeding comet instead?
This strategy may cost less overall, but it wasn’t going to be much easier. On November 12, when Philae attempts to land, all manner of things can go wrong. The gravity of 67P is so small that Philae could hit the surface, bounce off and be lost in the emptiness of space.
We will nervously wait for news about Philae’s fate. After Philae leaves Rosetta, it will take about seven hours to reach the comet surface. If Rosetta achieves the comet landing, I believe it will be the most exciting space mission of my lifetime. (Of course, I wasn’t alive for the Apollo landings which will remain the most amazing space missions in history).
One could argue that there are many other missions in recent years that are just as impressive, if not more so, than Rosetta. It is usually the ones with the big backing from the US space agency NASA, such as the Curiosity rover mission that spring to mind. However, most recently I was impressed with the Indian mission, Mangalyaan, that entered into Mars orbit this year after a ten-month journey – and with a tiny budget.
However, I have to admit, it sneaked up on me – I wasn’t really aware of Mangalyaan until a couple of days before the orbit was announced. This is where we find that a bit of quality promotion goes a long way.
Just take NASA’s Curiosity as an example, which continuously shares images of Mars’ surface. Even before it reached there, videos such as such as the famous seven minutes of terror captivated audiences. The mission itself is of course impressive. Mars is about 150 times farther from the Earth than the moon. And the crazy sky-crane landing, getting it down successfully I was sure it would end in failure. But it didn’t. The science continues to beamed back by the rover.
ESA has started to play catch-up with NASA and its most recent video release, called “Ambition”, really took me by surprise. It is definitely something out of the ordinary: a big-budget-style sci-fi movie, with famous actors, such as Aidan Gillen of Game of Thrones fame, and a subtle yet powerful message relating to the Rosetta mission.
Whatever the movie cost to make, it was definitely worth it. We desperately need to inspire the space scientists of the future – and I spend a lot of time in schools chatting to children about their life ambitions in the hope they might want to follow me on a science career path.
My main words of advice to these children are similar to those that most stuck with me: aim high. I wanted to be an astronaut, so maybe I haven’t made it there (yet), but being a space scientist in such amazing times, when we are attempting to land on the surface of a comet, is not a bad second best.
Natalie Starkey receives funding from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). She is affiliated with The Open University.