Thursday, 13 November 2014

Something extraordinary happened

last night. While I was having my nightly catnap something was happening that has never happened before. It happened about 510m kms away. A little space probe landed on a comet at a speed of about 55,000 kms an hour.
Nobody has ever landed on a comet before. Nobody even knew if it could happen. It did happen.
I watched the updates as long as I could but I had to go to bed at a reasonable hour because I have four big days ahead at the Quilt and Craft Fair. But...the first thing I did this morning was turn on my news feed to find out if the landing had been successful - and it was.
It is hard to imagine the tension that must have been building in the control centre at the European Space Agency. For some of the workers there this has been the culmination of a ten year project - and, for some, it would have been much longer than that. The project might not have started but they would have been dreaming about it.
I know what that is like. You do dream. You dream daily, sometimes several times a day and for prolonged periods in the day. Projects like that take over your life. Oh yes, other things still matter. You still do other things but the project is always there. It never lets go of you. It is the thing that you want to succeed at above all other things.
And, they have done it. There will have been that initial adrenalin rush, the huge surge of relief and excitement - and then the flat feeling. You have done it. You are exhausted. The question is, what comes next? There will be something - but what?
NASA's Deep Space Communication Complex at Tidbinbilla in the Australian Capital Territory was part of the project. I have been there - a long time ago. It has been through a bush fire since then and been upgraded. I went out there one evening with someone who was doing a doctorate at the Australian National University. He was working on a project there and arrange for me and several other students to have a look.
It was eerie. There was not a lot to see in one sense, buildings, computers, tracking equipment and so on. What struck me most I think was how quiet the place was outside. Those eyes to the sky are just watching and listening. It is unnerving. If you wanted to make a tense scene for a film then go somewhere like that!
One of the students who went with me was a boy who had just begun to do a degree course in maths. He was doing it because "I'm supposed to be good at maths and I quite like it and I didn't know what else to do".
I talked to him again some weeks later. He was going back to Tidbinbilla with the doctoral student. He had, he thought, discovered what he wanted to do - and yes, there is plenty of scope for mathematicians in the space industry.
I can't help wondering if he was part of the team. I hope he was. It's the sort of thing you dream about - and a few of us are lucky and see the hard work behind such dreams become reality.

1 comment:

Philip C James said...

The figure of 55,000 km/h, which I assume is the comet's velocity relative to the Sun, is a little of a red herring. Rosetta is in orbit around Comet 67P so has a very small velocity component radial to the Comet.

The closing velocity of Philae to 67P would have been low (it took 7 hours to transit from Rosetta to the surface) perhaps less than walking pace to limit any rebound from the surface in the ultra low gravity.

The mission that requires superlatives is, for me, the ESA Giotto fly-by of Halley's Comet in 1986. The s/c didn't have the fuel to give it the Delta-V to match velocities with HC (it took Rosetta 10 years and several planetary gravity assists and an orbit that took it out to the outer reaches of the solar system in order to gradually match orbits with 67P).

So Giotto flew-by HC with a closing speed of SEVENTY km/s (43 miles per second)! It was designed with a special sacrificial shield to defend it as even a tiny speck of dust impacting at that speed could destroy it. Indeed, the camera, which naturally had to point out past the shield to see Halley's Comet, was destroyed during the fly-by, the perturbation of the spin-stabilised s/c almost causing the probe to permanently lose comms with the Earth.

Rosetta/Philae is of course even more impressive (tho slow and gentle is less spectacular than fast and fiery!).