Public Release: 

The wake-up call that sent hearts racing

IOP Publishing

"But as the minutes ticked by, the relaxed attitude of many of us began to dissolve into apprehension. Our levels of adrenaline and worry began to rise."

"The room went silent, interspersed with only an occasional murmur, all faces fixed on a noisy, fuzzy line on our computer screens."

For some of the 300 scientists and engineers gathered around the computer screens, decades of hard work had culminated in this one moment - the comet-chasing Rosetta spacecraft, floating in space over 8 million km away from Earth, was about to wake up from a 957-day period in which it had been in "hibernation".

The mood in the European Space Agency (ESA) control room, as described by Rosetta project scientist Matt Taylor in this month's issue of Physics World, soon switched from trepidation to jubilation as a clear spike on the computer screen indicated that Rosetta had come to life.

"We were back in business," he writes.

This thrilling moment signalled the end of the long period in which the Rosetta spacecraft had been surviving in "hibernation mode" to preserve energy as it travelled further away from the Sun, which acts as its power supply.

Since this critical moment on 20 January 2014, the Rosetta spacecraft has rendezvoused with the comet that it is chasing - Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko - and officials last month selected the site that the piggybacked Philae robot will land on once dispatched from the spacecraft. Touchdown is set to take place on 12 November.

But this "audacious and exciting" mission is no ordinary space project. Most exploration missions start with observations of the destination from Earth, followed by the deployment of a craft to observe it from space and then, only afterwards, is a landing craft considered. The Rosetta mission will instead condense two space missions into one.

It is hoped that Comet 67P - a mixture of dust, rock and frozen gases that spans 4.5 km in length - will help to unlock the mysteries of how our solar system formed some 4.5 billion years ago and how it developed into what we see today.

As Taylor describes in the article, the spacecraft and accompanying lander will deploy specific instruments to probe the surface of the comet, its physical and chemical make-up, as well as its interaction with the Sun.

The stakes are high, which made events in the ESA control room on 20 January even more gruelling. Yet for Taylor, the deployment of the Philae lander on the 12 November this year will be even more dramatic.

"Compared with the wake up, the landing will be even more nerve-wracking - it will not be a gut-wrenching few minutes, but a torturous few hours," he writes.

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Also in this issue:

  • Still searching for SUSY - although CERN's Large Hadron Collider has so far found no signs of supersymmetry, James H Gates from the University of Maryland insists we must continue looking.

  • The STEM shortage paradox - Physics World careers editor Margaret Harris looks into why employers in the UK bemoan a lack of people with degrees in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects yet such graduates themselves can find it hard to get jobs.

Please mention Physics World as the source of these items and, if publishing online, please include a hyperlink to: http://physicsworld.com

Notes for editors:

1. Physics World is the international monthly magazine published by the Institute of Physics. For further information or details of its editorial programme, please contact the editor, Dr Matin Durrani, tel +44 (0)117 930 1002. The magazine's website physicsworld.com is updated regularly and contains daily physics news and regular audio and video content. Visit http://physicsworld.com.

2. For copies of the articles reviewed here contact Mike Bishop, IOP Publishing Senior Press Officer, tel: +44 (0)11 7930 1032, e-mail: michael.bishop@iop.org

3. The Institute of Physics is a leading scientific society. We are a charitable organisation with a worldwide membership of more than 50,000, working together to advance physics education, research and application.

We engage with policymakers and the general public to develop awareness and understanding of the value of physics and, through IOP Publishing, we are world leaders in professional scientific communications.

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