What surprises next from the Rosetta rollercoaster?

At the European Space Agency’s latest Rosetta briefing this week, the lead scientist for the Philae comet lander, Jean-Pierre Bibring, concluded with some special words. The Frenchman, sporting one of his fine collection of scarves, remarked: “The dream is being pursued. And if it is a dream, then I would prefer not to wake up!”

Crescent Earth from the passing Rosetta spacecraft. Image credit: ESA (MPS for OSIRIS Team), MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/RSSD/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Funnily enough, he rather echoed some words that I had sent to a member of the Rosetta publicity team a few days earlier after the latest bizarre development in this ongoing journey of exploration. I told her: “The Rosetta mission is unlike any other . . . I sometimes think I am dreaming some of it!”

That comment came after Rosetta chief scientist Matt Taylor appeared at a major heavy metal event at London’s IndigO2 arena to be hailed like a rock god by fans of groups with names such as Napalm Death, Morbid Angel and Cannibal Corpse.

So not your typical stage presentation in connection with a major space mission, I’d suggest! But then the Rosetta mission has been full of surprises and some surreal moments since the very start.

The mission was initially designed to collected a comet sample and bring it back to Earth, following Giotto’s successful flyby of Halley’s Comet in 1986, but that was considered overambitious by the time it got final approval in November 1993, more than 21 years ago.

It was supposed to launch in January 2003 and fly to a different comet to that we have become so familiar with, known as 46P/Wirtanen. But the failure of an Ariane 5 rocket in December 2002 set its own launch date back while the cause of that setback was determined. Meanwhile Comet Wirtanen was moving out of range so ESA had to find another target for Rosetta. When it finally blasted off on March 2, 2004, it was on its way to a new destination – Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

The journey was not to be a direct one. Instead, as is now common with interplanetary probes, Rosetta took a circuitous route in order to gain momentum from close flybys, first of Earth in March 2005, and then Mars in February 2007. This latter encounter was a remarkably daring one as Rosetta was sent skimming just 250 km (160 miles) above the Martian surface!

Rosetta’s next moment of drama was extraordinary when it was mistaken for an incoming asteroid in November 2007! The world’s HQ for logging and monitoring new asteroid discoveries, the Minor Planet Center, alerted professional observatories by email after it recorded what appeared to be a cosmic missile heading for Earth and on course to miss by just 5,600 km, half the diameter of our planet. They even gave it a label, 2007 VN84.

As the UK’s Royal Astronomical Society prepared to issue a release to the public about the “near miss”, a scientist in Moscow by the name of Denis Denisenko realised that this was no asteroid, this was ESA’s spacecraft heading back for another gravity assist boost! Cue red faces all round.

Next mission highlight came on Sept. 5, 2008, when Rosetta flew close to a genuine asteroid, 2867 Šteins, passing it by just 800 km (500 miles) and taking detailed images of its cratered surface. A third and final swing past Earth was then made in November 2009 when Rosetta’s OSIRIS narrow-angle camera took the beautiful main image of our planet as a blue crescent. 

Then Rosetta was on its way to visit a second asteroid on its long journey to the comet. It flew past  21 Lutetia at a distance of 3,168 km (1,969 miles), further enhancing our knowledge of the zone of rocky bodies that lies between Mars and Jupiter.

Rosetta was put into hibernation in July 2011 to conserve power as it headed out into the cold of the Solar System. And the moment of its reawakening was handled by ESA with the creative genius that we have now come to expect from the mission team. They launched a campaign – with prizes – to encourage space fans of all ages to record video clips of themselves calling “Wake up Rosetta!”

I still remember the tension on Jan. 20, 2014, as the moment approached when Rosetta was due to call home saying it was awake – and the elation in the mission control room at Darmstadt, Germany, when a spike on the screens showed that signal had been received.

Rosetta was back in business and within a few months came the next surprise as its target comet’s nucleus revealed itself to be a strange, twin-lobed structure that mission scientists swiftly likened to a duck! This was going to make challenging ESA’s aim to land the spacecraft’s piggyback probe Philae on its surface.

After Rosetta performed the necessary burns to go into a peculiar multi-arced orbit around 67P, close study of the comet began. Meanwhile, that creative communications team was continuing to capture public interest in the mission with a series of charming animations that portrayed Rosetta and Philae as living buddies on a big adventure together.

That imagination showed itself further when journalists, myself included, were summoned to a mysterious event at the British Film Institute in London. There we caught the first public showing of Ambition, a Hollywood-style short scifi movie made for ESA by Oscar-nominated movie director, Tomek Bagiński, and starring actors Aidan Gillen, from Game of Thrones, and Aisling Franciosi, of The Fall).

That clever promotion was the first time I got to meet Matt Taylor and marvel at his spectacular wardrobe and equally colourful body art, including the Rosetta probe tattooed on one leg! The next time we met, at Darmstadt for the Philae landing, his attire again attracted attention, but in an unfortunate way, after he was interviewed for the event in a scifi fantasy shirt that included images of scantily clad women. Despite the fact it had been made for him by a female admirer, a Twitter “shirtstorm” erupted that threatened to overshadow the triumph of the mission itself – the latest strange twist in the Rosetta story.

And Philae’s landing was a triumph, even if we later found that it did not quite go as expected, with the little probe bouncing to end up in the shadow of a cliff where it could not collect enough sunlight to keep its batteries charged and to stay awake. Who can forget the video that has now gone viral showing the hugely excited Professor Monica Grady hugging a BBC reporter when news of touchdown was announced?

As Rosetta busied itself collecting great science from its orbit about the comet, hopes were held out that a change in illumination conditions at the comet might allow Philae to come back from the dead. I don’t know how many people really expected this to happen, but it felt like a miracle last Sunday when ESA revealed that the probe had indeed awoken and called home on June 12. As I write, its communications are becoming more frequent and there is the prospect that Philae will soon be exploring 67P’s surface once again.

So Matt Taylor had plenty to celebrate last week when he wore his latest colourful shirt to collect the Spirit award from astrophysicist-turned-rock star Brian May at that Metal Hammer Golden Gods event in London. And as I watched Matt raise his arms to acknowledge the audience’s cheers, I wondered just what future surprises this dream mission called Rosetta has in store for us.

(This article originally appeared on my regular blog for SEN.com.)

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