The Rosetta Mission so far

30 November 2015

For this year’s Nottingham Trent University’s annual lecture Matt Taylor, European Space Agency Project Scientist on the Rosetta mission, presented the amazingly ambitious and engaging Rosetta Mission that sparked the imagination of millions over the past year.

Matt Taylor selfie

On 18 November Matt Taylor talked about the historic Rosetta mission to the comet 67-P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko that allowed the washing machine sized lander, Philae, to touch down its surface. During the talk he presented the main aims of the mission, its arrival at the comet during 2014, and its ongoing outstanding work during 2015 that will carry on into 2016.

The event was immensely popular and hundreds of visitors of different ages and backgrounds, including local school groups attended. They first had the opportunity to experience science busking in the newly built Teaching and Learning Building and modern lecture halls. Nottingham Trent University Student Ambassadors presented several IOP physics experiments followed by a special build your own comet activity led by students. If these hands-on activities weren’t enough, the ESA short film ‘Ambitions’, turning science fiction into science fact, prepared the visitors for the main talk.

Matt Taylor managed to capture the audience from the start, through his engaging and open manner, including his ritual selfie snaps, and Rosetta mission background stories. We were taken from what the first humans might have felt when seeing a comet burning in the skies to how Halley’s comet was one of the first we managed to fly-by with a specifically designed mission. In his introduction it was made clear how comets are the solar systems freezer, keeping the initial core ingredients that made our solar system intact. Analysing their chemical composition and understanding them better would help us understand where we came from.

The details of the actual Rosetta mission illustrated how truly ambitious the task was to not only examine 67Ps environment in-situ but also land a probe on its surface. It took 10 years to arrive at the comet and was able to swing into orbit into something that was until then at best a blob on the imagers of even Hubble. Every step of the way described by Matt as a narrative of exploration with many anecdote that made the mission team seem more approachable and relatable than ever. Key moments such as the awakening of Rosetta from hibernation were used as event during the mission that were opportunities for the outreach team to engage audiences around the world. Such was its success that during the week of the Rosetta Philae landing, 69% of the UK’s population had heard of this mission.

Apart from the fascinating landing, better described as treble bounce, the final resting place of the lander was discussed and presented in several stunning images. Key outcomes of the mission so far were presented, that included the chemical composition of the actual comet and outgassing material, illustrating the surprising presence of molecular oxygen. Also the layered structure of 67P similar to an onion allowed mission scientists to uncover that the comet was most likely a slow merger of two distinct separate objects. Only these two findings outlined the impact the mission has had on understanding conditions in our early solar system.

The talk ended with an outlook on what is still to come. In the coming weeks we might be in a position to listen out for the lander. There might even be the possibility to try even more elaborate ways of waking up the Philae lander possibly firing its harpoon’s. Rosetta will still be working till end of September 2016 and will most likely undergoing a controlled descent or crash in its final stages.
Matt managed to not only deliver an engaging presentation that captured the imagination of all present, but triggered a question and answer session that carried on over wine for more than one hour. Obviously with a queue of visitors wanting a selfie. During the questions it became clear that the ESA team around Matt Taylor managed to engage people so well since they delivered their mission in a narrative based upon ambition and adventure. His comments even touched upon moral aspects within our society: “… maybe we should first do the science before we shoot at things…”, and covered the many conspiracy theories circling about 67P.

Overall, this IOP lecture can be best summarised by one of the visitors tweeting afterwards that the two hours’ drive each way to the venue were worth it. We can only sit back and imagine what we can achieve if we have ambitions.