Airbus Defence and Space

Rosetta: a technological marvel

Launched in March 2004, ESA’s comet-chasing Rosetta spacecraft has been woken up from 31 months of deep-space slumber. For the mission to succeed, the engineers at Airbus Defence and Space (formerly Airbus Defence and Space) have had to master numerous technical challenges, both before and during the mission:

“The Rosetta mission features an array of pioneering achievements, with many technologies and methods being used for the first time. It’s an unprecedented undertaking in the history of spaceflight and one that is designed to deliver new insights into the origins of life on Earth,” says a proud Gunther Lautenschläger, project manager at Airbus Defence and Space.

So far, the journey to the comet has taken ten years, some of which the probe has had to travel in energy-saving mode – effectively a kind of hibernation – on account of the vast distances involved. During this period, it has had to fend for itself and survive without any assistance. Radio contact was rendered impossible because of a lack of solar energy.

Another technical challenge was getting the thermal design of the probe right. Rosetta’s distance from the sun has been subject to great variation during the mission (between 130 million and 945 million km). As a result, there have been big differences in how much the Sun’s rays heat up the spacecraft (from -270°C to +100°C). In a European first, special shutters that open and close autonomously depending on temperature and solar radiation were developed in order to ensure that the fluctuations in the probe’s interior stay within a defined range.

Rosetta is the first solar-powered probe to fly beyond the orbit of Mars. It gathers the energy it needs using specially developed solar cells that are optimised for conditions of very low light intensity and very low temperatures.

When entering orbit around the comet, Rosetta will navigate by the stars using a kind of small telescope. It is possible that comet dust surrounding the probe will obscure its view by scattering the light. To prevent this from causing Rosetta to lose its way, smart software was developed to reliably recognise constellations for navigation purposes even when there is major interference from dust particles.

Airbus Defence and Space is ESA’s industrial prime contractor for this mission, and the project was run from Friedrichshafen. Airbus Defence and Space UK was responsible for the architectural design of the Rosetta platform, the solar panels and the complex propulsion system, while Airbus Defence and Space France supplied the avionics and Airbus Defence and Space Spain the medium gain antenna system. In total, an industrial team comprising more than 50 subcontractors from 15 countries was involved in the Rosetta mission.