When a tiny space probe called Philae landed on a comet, then bounced twice and disappeared from view, the whole world seemed to hold its breath. The tiny robot became a hero, and the ESA Rosetta mission became a household name on that action-packed day in November 2014, the most recent event that we have chosen to feature in our year-long Legends of Space series, celebrating 60 years since Sputnik.
Matt Taylor, the Rosetta Mission Scientist, recalls how the timing of the mission demanded that the team work far more swiftly than is usual in space missions : “November 2014 we had to deploy the lander Philae to the surface, and this was a quick turnaround period. So if you think, beginning of the year we didn’t really know what the comet looked like, and before the end of the same year we had to deploy 100 kilogrammes of robotic lander onto the surface.”
“I persistently thought every day that everything was going to fall apart. The stress level on Rosetta was incredibly high,” he tells Euronews.
Philae was released from the Rosetta mothership early in the morning of November 12th, and the scientists, journalists and VIPs at ESA’s control centre in Darmstadt had to bite their nails for seven hours until news was due to come that the probe had landed. Eventually, confirmation came, and there were cheers throughout the control room. One of those in the heart of the story was Gerhard Schwehm, former Rosetta mission manager and mission scientist at ESA. He tells Euronews: “It was just joy and relief. OK, I heard a couple of minutes later from my dear friends that it was still jumping, but it was on the surface of the comet. You know for me that was basically secondary. Just that we got it down, it had landed!”
The Rosetta mission spanned several generations of space explorers, with the oldest minds behind the mission now well into retirement. However, they couldn’t miss the show, and former ESA director of science Roger-Maurice Bonnet was in the front row of the audience waiting for Philae to land. He describes the outburst of emotion when touchdown was confirmed: “It was a moment of real joy. Everyone was hugging each other, there was no more rank or political hierarchy or anything else, it was a victory of human kind over a mythical object.”
Looking back at the project, the science of Rosetta continues to surprise the research community, revealing a great deal about cometary bodies and the origins of our solar system. However the most lasting impact of the mission is human, according to Matt Taylor: “Ultimately this was an international endeavor that enabled this to happen. So for me, that’s the legacy of Rosetta – see what you can do when you can work together,” he says.