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A glimpse into a new, yet ancient world

A glimpse into a new, yet ancient world

By now I’m sure you have all heard about Rosetta, and the long awaited arrival at its destination, and you’ve all seen the stunning images of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko that are being returned to Earth, giving an unprecedented hires insight to a piece of our ancient history. Rosetta’s arrival to its comet is one of those rare happy occasions, when Space achievements are widely reported in general press. Tons of scientific, and not-so-scientific ;-), reports have already been posted all over the internet and dozens of arguably more qualified than me people have explained most of what is to be explained.

The moment the signal of Rosetta arrival's reached Earth

Arrival signal obtained!

I was there at ESA’s ESOC facilities in Darmstadt, Gremany to witness the moment when at 09:30 UTC, the ground based stations received the signal confirming the successful execution of the first of a series of maneuvers that will eventually bring the spacecraft into a 50 klm orbit around the comet. You can view an animation of Rosetta’s maneuvers planned for the coming weeks here. Although clearly the arrival at the comet was not the biggest achievement in this project, I chose to be there because it felt to me as a big moment. A moment to pause and reflect. Reflect on what was done, what it took to do it, and how this fits into the history of the world, into the story of us.

Exploring a comet on location (in situ, as the scientists call it) was a dream conceived three decades ago, inspired by the one of the most fundamental human needs, the need to understand, to explain and thus to explore. Composed from the primordial ingredients of the early Solar System, comets have been roaming interplanetary space since its birth unchanged “by the elements” or by time. They are hoped to contain the answers to our questions. Here is a video created by NASA JPL explaining more on why we think comets are important.

Since the beginning, the Rosetta project had to endure scientific skepticism, political turmoil, financial uncertainties, and unprecedented technological challenges. Yet it succeeded. It survived NASA’s withdrawal from the project, a last minute change in target-comet selection, and a most-feared 2-year-long hibernation during its 10 year and 6.4 billion kilometer journey into the cold inhospitable Solar System. Constructed on what is now considered obsolete technology, by engineers who have long since retired, Rosetta proved to be a marvel of engineering and a triumph of knowledge transfer and process continuity between generations of team members. It became the little space-engine that could, and in the words of ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain, somewhere between Jupiter and Mars, Rosetta’s drivers proved to be the best drivers in the world.

Comet 67P (aka the Rubber Duckie) on August 11

Comet 67P (aka the Rubber Duckie) on August 11

While the bulk of the engineer’s work is now completed, the mission is far from an end. As eloquently put by ESA representatives, this is not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning. The scientists’ work is only now starting. I was amazed to hear how must science has already been done on the comet. Comet 67P-Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which is not even the comet originally targeted for, is an unexpected jewel. It’s rubber-duck-like shape indicates that it might actually consist of two pieces (the head and the body) fused together, providing to be a buy-one-get-one-free bonus for research.

Named after astronomers Klim Churyumov and Svetlana Gerasimenko, who discovered it in 1969, comet 67P is one of numerous short period comets which have orbital periods of less than 20 years and a low orbital inclination. Since their orbits are controlled by Jupiter’s gravity, they are also called Jupiter Family comets. These comets are believed to originate from the Kuiper Belt, a large reservoir of small icy bodies located just beyond Neptune. As a result of collisions or gravitational perturbations, some of these icy objects are ejected from the Kuiper Belt and fall towards the Sun.

67P has been observed from Earth on seven approaches to the Sun – 1969 (discovery), 1976, 1982, 1989, 1996, 2002 and 2009. As most of these comets, 67P is pitch-black and not reflective, so very difficult to observe. As you are admiring the spectacular photographs, keep in mind that they are false-color images composed for better comprehension of the very subtle color variations observed on the surface. ESA is releasing new images from Rosetta’s navigational camera on a daily basis.

Comet close-up on August 6, 2014 from Rosetta’s OSIRIS narrow-angle camera

Comet close-up on August 6, 2014 from Rosetta’s OSIRIS narrow-angle camera

Close-up of 67P from Rosetta’s OSIRIS narrow-angle camera on August 6, 2014

Close-up of 67P from Rosetta’s OSIRIS narrow-angle camera on August 6, 2014

Rosetta scientists have already been able to determine that the comet’s rotation is stable with little or no wobbling, on a tilted rotational axis running down between the head and the body of comet. The spacecraft began feeling the comet’s gravity two weeks ago. Not being a spherical object, 67P’s gravity is not pulling exactly surface-down on most locations, which will prove a challenge for the second stage of the experiment, a hard-docking type of landing on the surface, which is planned for November this year.  In the next weeks the comet’s mass and gravity will be precisely calculated by measuring the bending of the spacecraft’s triangular trajectory.

The first images of the coma

The first images of the coma

Although still at a distance of more than 140 million klm from the Sun, 67P is already active, venting water gas at a rate of 0.3kg/sec which is the equivalent of a soda can of water per second. Water spectra from the tail of the comet show a Doppler redshift, indicating the direction and speed at which it is moving away from the Earth.  They also reveal very little gas activity on the dark side, i.e. the side facing away from the Sun.

The next challenge is choosing a suitable place to land! The computer graphic below was created from Rosetta OSIRIS and NavCam images and shows the first estimations of possible landing sites. Yellow and orange indicate what are so far considered the best landing areas, while the green circles and ellipses mark provisional landing sites. The red areas are parts of the comet’s northern hemisphere in constant sun: the Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko summer. The blue areas are now in constant darkness, either due to the weird shape of the comet and/or the side being in the Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko winter.

Potential landing sites on Comet 67P

Potential landing sites on Comet 67P

It was originally envisaged that the nucleus of the comet would be rock hard, and so in order to avoid re-bouncing on impact, the lander Philae is designed to immediately transform all kinetic energy in its legs to electric energy, while its harpoons immediately drill in the comet’s surface to secure the lander in position. Now that 67P is within reach, its surface is thought to be more soft than originally expected.  The max temperature measured indicates a surface that is porous and has little water. Dust particles from the comet have also started to be analysed, revealing a density equal to or perhaps even higher of that predicted by the models.

But landing on the comet is not the primary objective of Rosetta. And it also is not a sure thing, especially now that 67P has revealed itself to be a more complex structure than ever dreamed of. Rosetta will be orbiting the comet for the next two years as it gets closer and closer to the Sun. Rosetta’s instruments will be measuring the comet’s transformation getting all the data  required from the orbiter. Any measurements obtained from the lander, if it manages to successfully dock, will be an added bonus.

Following the tales of this little spacecraft will be a fabulous journey. In an era when space exploration looks rather stagnant, Rosetta is giving us back the hope that the best is yet to come.


Credit for all images on this post belongs to ESA and the Rosetta instrument teams.

The Space Tweep Society European Branch

@SpaceTweepsIt’s been two years since the European Space Agency (ESA) first opened it’s doors to Space enthusiasts, and already the SpaceTweeps community has grown into a vibrant solid group in Europe, with new members joining everyday.  Inspired by some of the Society’s core U.S. members, who crossed the pond to attend the 1st SpaceTweetup on September 18, 2011 in Germany, the European SpaceTweeps have grabbed the torch and.. have been running ever since!

In the past two years, SpaceTweeps have been invited to more than ten Tweetups in Europe organised by numerous Space & Science Institutions such as ESA, DLR, CNES, OeWF, CERN, ISU etc., and they have spontaneously attended almost all major space related conferences and events on this planet, including the 2012 ISS Symposium in Berlin, Germany, SpaceFest V in Tucson, Arizona and the 64th International Astronautical Congress in Beijing, China. They have also  joined forces with scientists and space professionals in already organizing four SpaceUp un-conferences all over the continent.

While having tons of fun in the process, SpaceTweeps have been spreading their excitement and love for space exploration and scientific research to thousands of people, with their tweets, posts and blogs.  Happily, officials in Europe have not been shy in publicly acknowledging SpaceTweeps’ contribution to increasing outreach and public awareness of their activities on twitter or on their official websites.  ESA was even bold enough to host the second largest European SpaceUp in its Paris headquarters and to promote it on its official website.

The video below was produced, during last week’s ESA/DLR SocialSpace event, by Henning Krause of Helmholtz Association (CC-BY 3.0), who has been fascinated by the Society’s momentum and drive. Many claim that this says it all 😉

SocialSpace interviews: The Space Tweeps Community


520 Days of Dreams and Hope

520 Days of Dreams and Hope

The Russian Phobos-Grunt mission may not have been the success everyone had hoped, but the dream of Mars exploration is far from fading. On November 26, 2011, the world witnessed the spectacular launch of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) spacecraft, including the new Curiosity rover, aiming to uncover the secrets of Mars and hopefully gather evidence of life on the Red Planet. It won’t be long before a shiny-new powerful rocket carries the first people on the Marsian surface!

But before a mission putting humans on Mars can even begin to get planned, we need to understand and master the difficulties inherent in such a long and unprecedented trip into the Solar System.

The Mars500 experiment, concluded on November 4, 2011, promises to deliver interesting results on the physiological and psychological effects that prolonged isolation has on the human body. During the experiment six ‘marsonauts’ (three Russian, two European and one Chinese) were sealed in an isolation chamber, in Moscow, Russia, for 520 days, i.e. for the duration of a trip to Mars and back. Mars500 simulated almost every aspect of such interplanetary travel, including time-lagged communications and a Mars landing.

To celebrate the successful conclusion of the mission, ESA organized the #Mars500Tweetup, on December 6, 2011 in Rome, during which 20 SpaceTweeps got to meet the two ESA members of the Mars500 crew, Romain Charles (@Romain_CHARLES) and Diego Urbina (@diegou).

Credit: ESA

Not resembling to the least the little green men you would normally expect ;-), Diego and Romain stood among us, tall and proud, looking happy and content – although admittedly a bit pale (…nothing a long and well deserved vacation on a sunny white beach can’t fix!).

Credit: @mgilbir

They talked to us about their lives ‘on board’ the modules, their training for this mission and the experiments performed during the ‘trip’. But, also, about everyday trivia of this amazing experience, like celebrating Christmas, New Year and Halloween, entertaining their monotony with music and art, as well as the secret recipe for Marsian Balls and Mars Pizza. Their eyes lit up when they described the docking and landing simulation on the Marsian surface, almost as you would expect if they had actually been there. We listened (..and religiously tweeted) as Romain and Diego took us on trip of dreams and hope into to the future of human spaceflight.

Undeniably, this mission was not a fun one to go through; it was hard and tedious and, probably, unbearable at times. As Diego told me on the eve of the Mars500tweetup, “it was in mid-August, on the completion of 438 days in isolation, when we received a message from cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov, congratulating us braking his record for the longest time ever spent apart from the natural world, that I actually realized that we were doing something truly special”.  And he repeated during the Mars500tweetup: “being part of something greater than yourself is an amazing motivation.

Credit: ESA

The results of the scientific experiments will be released in the months to come. But, one result was already abundantly evident to me: Without having ever met them before, you could undoubtedly tell that, if the Mars500 mission has accomplished one thing, that’s to alter the crew’s perspective on life. In Diego’s own words, as documented in his Mars500 Mission Diary: “….this was not a journey into the cosmos, but a journey to know ourselves and our minds, to realize how important respect and communication are …, how fundamental are the links to the real world, thin and fragile as they may be…”. “We somehow ended up feeling a little bit more human than normal, by having been taken ‘away from humanity’”. “Forget about the things you don’t have and squeeze all the juice out of the things that you DO…!

Thank you Sukhrob, Alexey, Alexandr, Wang, Romain and Diego for giving up 1.5 years of your lives for the advancement of space exploration.


Check out the entire story of the Mars500 mission here.

1st European SpaceTweetup #Spacetacular!!

1st European SpaceTweetup #Spacetacular!!

On 18 September, the German Aerospace Centre (DLR, @dlr_en) and the European Space Agency (ESA, @esa) invited 60 lucky Twitter followers to the first European SpaceTweetup.  Among them some of our most prominent members, @flyingjenny, @herrea, @CraftLass, @travelholic, @amoroso, @marcozambi, @SpaceKate, @DrLucyRogers and @rocketman528. I (@akanel) was also lucky to be invited – and this was my first Tweetup ever!

The SpaceTweetup took place on German Aerospace Day at the joint DLR and European Astronaut Centre site in Cologne.  It was an amazing day, which not even the German grey and rainy weather could spoil!  …it did, of course, make our photographs a bit murky, but that’s about it!

The SpaceTweetup program was full and exciting.  So many thrills packed inside approx. 10 hours that could have easily been the object of two or more separate events.  For those who didn’t get to attend, a four hour (!) long selection of the best moments is available on ESA’s site.


Photo credit: @SimSullen

The day started very excitingly.  We visited and learned about the SOFIΑ Project (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy), DLR and NASA’s impressive airborne telescope.  Mounted on a Boeing 747SP aircraft modified by L-3 Communications Integrated Systems, SOFIA has a 2.5 meter reflecting telescope, which makes measurements during flight!  High above the disturbances caused by Earth’s atmosphere, but also easily accessible for maintenance and modifications, SOFIA combines the advantages of space telescopes, like Herschel and Hubble, with the ease of ground based telescopes.

The science done on SOFIA is planned by the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) and the Deutsches SOFIA Institut (DSI) under the leadership of NASA Ames Research Centre.  Observing mostly in the far infrared, SOFIA will be used to study many different kinds of astronomical objects and phenomena, such as e.g. star birth and death, formation of new solar systems, identification of complex molecules in space (such as organic materials necessary for life), planets, comets and asteroids in our own solar system, nebulae and dust in galaxies and black holes at the centre of galaxies, helping to answer many fundamental questions about the creation and evolution of the Universe.

SOFIA Telescope. Photo credit: @Brigitte_Ba