Tumbling Stone 24 - Special Issue - Rosett'a launch

Special Issue : 15/03/2004
A scientific publication by SGF and NEODyS

Rosetta's launch

In science, some things don't come up at first try: a reportage from Kourou

by Angioletta Coradini - PI of the VIRTIS instrument on board of Rosetta

Kourou at the arrival of VIRTIS on the 25th of February : the launch is scheduled for this night
I love tropical countries, their climat, the sudden tropical rains, the sounds of unknown birds. So I was kind of happy, arriving at Kourou, in French Guyana, to attend to Rosetta's launch, and for some hours, I almost forgot all about the mission's problems.
And the stress of an event that plays with almost 30 years of our lives of researchers and that is not under our control.
At this moment, it is 5 o'clock in the afternoon and in about 11 hours, at 4 o'clock of tomorrow morning, the first try out of the launch will take place.
As soon as we get to Kourou, we hire a car and as we watch the almost empty Avis parking lot, we suddenly become aware that we must be among the last to arrive here. Arriving at our hotel, we meet the collegues of a lifetime, and we greet each other with kisses and hand shakes, just as if we were veterans of a war. We laugh and play around, just like schoolboys outside the classroom, waiting for the exam, making fun out of the prof., but knowing that their future is in his hands.
And the moment is kind of dramatic: it is exactly 19 years we all wait for this launch. The first meeting took place on October 1985, in Zurich, and at the beginning, a mission like Rosetta seemed just impossible. To explore a comet, a little, far and misterious body at the limits of the solar system.
The initial project, named CNSR (Comet Nucleus Sample Return), was formulated by NASA and ESA, but soon, NASA came over its steps and CNSR had to be reduced, since ESA had been left alone. Soon, NASA also abandoned CRAF (Comet rendez-vous Asteroid fly-by), a cometary project twin of the Cassini mission in which many europeans were also involved. But ESA continued working on this project and we could say that europe "stole" the idea of exploring a comet to NASA. Rosetta could be seen ad a super-CRAF, even if the possibility of a sample-return aspect of the mission had to be abandned, being pratically impossible to realize.
Somehow, my team also grew up with Rosetta: we began working on the theorical models of comets, soon getting involved in the technical aspects of a space mission, getting to the project of the VIRTIS instrument (Visible and Infrared Thermal Imaging Spectrometer), our instrument aboard of the Rosetta Spacecraft .
In VIRTIS' story we had to fight many battles. For example, like the competition with the french and deutch, that were integrated in a single working team.
The secret of our instrument is having put together different functions in a single, compact instrument, with the capability of working in very different conditions, observing different objects. VIRTIS takes images in the visible and infrared channels, and makes spetra, creating automatic geological maps of the objects it is observing. These capabilities have been used in the different applications of the instrument, like the analisys of Venus' atmosphere that VIRTIS will make on board of Venus Express, or the other objectives of its "little brothers" flying on board of other missions like Dawn and Bepi Colombo. One of the most interesting peculiarity of VIRTIS is its capability of surviving in very different places. Since it was initially studied to survive to Rosetta's trip to the comet from 1 to 5 AU, going to Mars and Venus isn't a big problem.
A meeting to organize the launch at Kourou: in the Jupiter room, everyone will have his place...
So, it was a very long trip, to arrive today, 26th of february 2004, to warch this launch. Coming back to Kourou, arriving at the hotel, we find some instructions by the spaceport organization. Very few, to say the truth: only some indications on where we will watch the launch from and the order of the operations. We also discover that we have been divided in 3 different groups: Vips, PIs and the others. We don't like it at all, all the PIs would like to stay with their teams in such a moment. But we have to agree.
Together with Luigi Colangeli, we decide to skip the Pis dinner (even if we are not sure, in the pre-launch confusion, if the dinner is really intended to be for Pis). All together - 16 italians and a deutchman- we go for a brasilian restaurant, eager to drown the Rosetta-event in a 'caipirigna'. We laugh, drink and have fun untill midnight, trying to forget that tomorrw morning, in a second, the destiny of the next 10 years will be decided. Afterwards, just like good boys, we all go to sleep.
Or at least, we try t, since the alarm clock will ring at 2 o' clock. While a tropical storm lullabys us just as if we were sleeping near a waterfall.
It is 2:30 AM and the science teams are going to the Jupiter room to watch the launch.
The morning after, the rendez-vous is at 2 and a half in the morning, at the Hotel "Les Roches". Our car travels in a dark Kourou, under a tropical rain. When we arrive at the Hotel, we find a great confusion: nobody really knows where to go and what to do. I can't believe that the same team that can manage a spacemission launch doesn't seem to be able to organize a few Km trip. After 2 hours, when the launch is only half an hour away, and we all think that we won't make it, finally the mess comes to an end and we all leave in ou buses for the centre.
When we enter into the Jupiter room, we find a completly different atmosphere. Here, everything seems to go the right way. We take place in our seats, following the organization's signs with our names. We sit in a kind of theatre, and in front of us, a glass wall separates us from a big room where we can see a big screen and a number of rows of desks and computers in front of it. It all looks like an acquarium where about 20 technicians seem very busy in front of their monitors. On the control panel in front of us, green lights are flowing. Everything seems OK and I finally take conscience of the fact that, after all, we seem to be launching!
26-02-2004 4:35 AM
The Jupiter room : all ready to launch...
But suddenly, on the monitor, a red light appears in front of us. The big screens lights up, and a voice in french -the Ariane language- tells us that we can't launch, see you tomorrow. The technical reason are the strong winds, that could be a danger for the population if there were any problem with the launch. A very good reason, and quite usual in the history of space missions.
But, as we soundly leave the room and we gather in front of a coffee, we can't hide a kind of worry.
2th of March: VIRTIS team is back in Italy and is watching de launch of Rosetta. In the front, Angioletta Coradini, author of this article.
We are afraid that the decisions of postponing the event one year ago and fixing the time of the launch for this window beginning today, were took by ESA for political reasons. In fact, with the retirement of the Ariane 4, Europe just had to have a new launcher. And after the explosion of the flight just before the one that had to bring Rosetta in space, Europe couldn't afford a defeat with the destruction of a cornerstone mission such as Rosetta.
Now, after more than a year, some more good launches have took place. But are the figures enough to justify the launch? Or would it have been more risky to keep Rosetta in stand by, with the need of changing target comet for a second time?
While we talk about all these topics, we try to find a place in the buses that will birng us back to the hotels.
Tomorrow night, at 4:35, we have an important rendez vous.
And tomorrow, is a different day.

A phtoreportage of Rosetta's launch click here to read it