Groundbreaking touchdown

2014-11-13 00:00

TWO dozen excited space enthusiasts gathered in Durban last night to celebrate “one of the great human achievements” — the first spacecraft landing on a comet.

Meanwhile, South African experts who have worked on other comet space missions were glued to live streams of the European Space Agency’s Rosetta landing yesterday afternoon.

The Philae landing craft touched down on “Comet 67 P” — roughly the size of Table Mountain — in a mission that could give a radical answer to the mystery of how life began on Earth.

The complex rendezvouz happened so far away — about the distance to Jupiter — that images travelling at the speed of light took 28 minutes to get back to the agency control room in Germany.

Having chased the icy comet for 10 years, at speeds of up to 60 000 km/h, while attached to its mother ship Rosetta, the washing machine-sized Philae used harpoons, thrusters and drills to set up camp on the exotic surface.

Durban-trained Sandile Malinga — head of the South African National Space Agency (SANSA) — told The Witness: “The global space community are pushing the boundaries in space.”

Durban engineer Francois Zinserling (49) has been following Rosetta’s every move for the past year, having become “hooked” on the daring mission.

He was among two dozen members of the Durban branch of the Astronomical Society of South Africa who toasted the nerve-wracking achievement at a meeting at Marist Brothers College.

Zinserling said he believed the mission would help confirm an increasingly powerful theory among scientists on how life began on Earth — that comets brought the building blocks for life in ancient impacts on the planet.

“It’s a huge achievement — imagine, this little machine has to land on this small object so far from earth that commands take half-an-hour to get there,” said Zinserling.

He said the mission had already made science breakthroughs — including the discovery that the comet “is not just a dead snowball, as had been thought, but has a lot of dust”.

At Sansa’s Hartebeesthoek Observatory in Gauteng, chief engineer Eugene Avenant was among a dozen technicians following live updates on the mission on five screens.

Avenant was on the team that tracked telemetry on the 2005 Nasa mission to smash a probe into a comet. The team also recently assisted the Indian mission to orbit a satellite around Mars.

He said: “It’s very exciting — although we have no involvement in the Rosetta mission, we feel real [solidarity] for the guys behind this effort, and have been holding thumbs. Long missions like this — 10 years — is a big chunk of people’s careers.”

Speaking before the landing, Avenant described the challenge faced by ESA mission controllers: “It is a micro-gravity environment on that comet, so if you were standing on it and stepped too fast, you’d fly off into space. We’ve just heard that a thruster which is supposed to help hold it down on the surface while they drill may not be working properly, so it could just bounce off.”

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