How Data from Space Could Reveal the Origins of our World
Q&A with Laurent Peret, Atos Consultant and Business Technologist, for the Rosetta Space Mission
Philae’s primary landing site ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team/MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
As the Rosetta Space Mission nears its final and most crucial phase – landing on the surface of the Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet – the team is working around the clock to ensure a successful and productive finale to this 10 year journey in the first ever mission to both orbit and land on a comet.
We chatted to Laurent Peret, one of the Atos Business Technologists, who has been working on the project for the last two years, to find out the challenges and discoveries made along the way.
Peret is working as part of a collaborative effort between Atos and the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES). The team have been handed the unprecedented task of sending a craft over 6.5 billion kilometres (including five loops around the Sun) to land on an area that would barely cover central London. And with comet currently over 450 million kilometres from Earth, this is one of the furthest explorations into deep space– Mars is just round the corner at only 225 million kilometres.
Q: What is your role on the Rosetta Space Mission?
LP: I work as an operations engineer at Atos within the Rosetta team monitoring the equipment, ensuring all activity and surface-experimentation is properly planned and can be executed in the most efficient way possible. Part of my role is to also help ensure that Philae, the spider-like landing craft, has enough resources to complete the mission and send back all the data the space scientists need.
Q: What is this mission hoping to discover?
LP: The results from the mission could hold the key to understanding how life began on Earth –maybe adding weight to the theory that impacts from comets may have brought vital reserves of water to our planet. To be part of such an important project is a real honour. It’s also a big responsibility! Knowing that the mission is trying to answer some of the fundamental questions of our own existence does add some pressure to the challenge of landing Philae.
Q: What measurements will you take?
LP: Once the lander is in place the experiment sequence can begin, taking diverse measurements over a 50 hour period, from thermal imaging, panoramic pictures of the surface through to recordings of the comet’s magnetic field. Philae will be busy analysing physical samples of the comet and then sending that data back to Earth – we’re hopeful of finding organic material, a potentially huge discovery.
Atos team at Rosetta Lander Mission Center in CNES (Toulouse, France). From left to right : Antoine Charpentier, Maryse Garroussia (operations engineers), Michel Delaire (system administrator), Laurent Peret, Dominique Hallouard (operations engineers), Laurent Jean-Rigaud (system administrator)
Q: What is one of the key challenges you will face?
LP: One of the key challenges we will be facing is ensuring that Philae has enough energy to properly execute the planned sequence of scientific experiments. The lander is powered by two main energy sources: a primary battery and solar panels. Orientation towards the sun is a key factor and the longer the lander can be exposed to its rays the more energy it can store – meaning more experiments can be conducted. However, should the craft take on too much energy then the lander’s science sequence will be cut off. It’s certainly not easy; our planning will need to be done with pin-point accuracy. We’ve developed expertise over the years so we’re adept at operating the software in charge of scheduling different activities for the lander.
Q: What have been some of the successes of the mission so far?
LP: Waking the craft up from its deep sleep was a huge moment for us – nearly three years of hibernation was also a first! The signal took over 22 minutes to reach us and the entire team was gathered around to watch. When it finally came through we were jumping for joy. We had a party to celebrate with CNES and the other scientists.
More recently, seeing the first image of the comet was an amazing experience – the data arrives every day from the orbiter and on that day we knew we were in range to get the first photo. We all thought it was a remarkable sight. The comet looked so surprising, like a giant rubber duck.
Q: So, what’s next for the mission?
LP: Well, we’ll be very busy over the next few weeks and there will be some long days (and nights) while we countdown to the landing. There will be tense moments but I just remind myself that this is vital work. I wouldn’t want any other job in the world.