The Comet, Astro_Samantha and Re-entry from Space

  • Giovanni CapraraEmail author


The entire period between the end of 2014 and the whole of 2015 was marked above all by two undertakings that demonstrated the evolution of Italian space activities both with regard to exploration with interplanetary probes and also human spaceflight. On 12 November 2014, the Philae lander detached from the mother probe Rosetta and descended to the surface of the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which was, at the time, 510 million km away. It was the climax of ESA’s mission, which had begun with the launch on 2 March 2004. After ten years of travel, in August 2014 the probe entered into orbit around the comet, initiating an extraordinary reconnaissance from various altitudes. The name of the small lander had been chosen by ESA after a competition open to schools in various countries and had been proposed by Serena Olga Vismara from Arluno, near Milan, a 14-year old student at a secondary school of humanistic studies and a space enthusiast. Philae was the name of the place in Egypt where the obelisks were found and on which there were inscriptions that made it possible to decipher the Rosetta stone, discovered along the Nile, and thus understand the meaning of the Egyptian hieroglyphics. Hence, the probe was given the same name because it would make it possible to reveal numerous secrets regarding the origins of comets. And that is what happened, thanks, among other things, to the Italian instruments prepared for the mission under ASI’s coordination, which had guaranteed considerable participation. Three were on the probe: Virtis, the infrared spectrometer, made by INAF’s Fabrizio Capaccioni, Giada, the detector for the impact of powders made by Alessandra Rotundi from the Parthenope University of Naples and WAC, the wide angle camera of the Osiris optical system, of which Cesare Barbieri from the University of Padua was the Principal Investigator and with which the place for Philae’s landing was also identified. The camera was made thanks to CISAS “Giuseppe Colombo”, the centre for space activities at the Padua University directed by Stefano Debei. The camera made it possible to gather detailed images of the comet’s nucleus. As well as the solar paddles prepared by the Milan Polytechnic, an exceptional instrument was also installed on Philae. This was a drill and a system of micro-ovens (SD2) in which the subsurface samples taken by the same drill can be examined. The drill was created under the guidance of Amalia Ercoli Finzi from the Milan Polytechnic and then built by Leonardo. It was the first attempt to land on a comet. Unfortunately, the attaching system did not work and Philae bounced until it lodged itself beneath a rock resting on one side. Its instruments detected environmental data and the drill also functioned perfectly, coming out of its container, but as a result of the wrong position, it was unable to pierce the ground. Meanwhile, Rosetta continuously sounded the surface to look for it and finally found it on 5 September 2016 in the area named Abydos. On the following 30 September Rosetta was placed on the surface, thus concluding an expedition that had lasted 12 years. The entire expedition, which cost 1.4 billion euro (2014 value) over twenty years, was managed by ESA’s ESOC centre in Darmstadt (Germany) where Paolo Ferri was in charge of all the operations of the various probes in orbit, while the director of the Rosetta mission was Andrea Accomazzo (Fig. 10.1).

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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.MilanItaly

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