Rosetta, Philae and The Need for Speed

At just after 10 AM CST (US) Wednesday morning, November 12, the European Space Agency received confirmation that the Rosetta spacecraft’s Philae lander touched down on its target, comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, currently more than 500 million kilometers away from Earth.

The initial jubilation over what appeared to be a perfect descent and touchdown, and a moment of undiluted triumph soon gave way to a growing awareness that Philae did not in fact “stick the landing”  (literally in this case) and as the week drew to a close, matters looked grim. Rather than sitting upright in an open area, Philae had apparently bounced off the comet after its cold gas thruster and its twin harpoons failed. After another, much smaller bounce, the spacecraft appeared to have come to a rest on its side in a small depression more than kilometer from its original target, its solar panels mostly in shadow, and its main battery voltage dropping to dangerously low levels. Even with partially successful efforts to re-position the solar panels, Philae fell silent.

Despite the mishaps, which the press has been uncharacteristically reluctant to criticize in its rush to anthropomorphize the lander, by any standard, it was an amazing achievement which ESA’s Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain called “a big step for human civilization.”  While there are three NASA instruments aboard Rosetta which will greatly add to the mission’s scientific output, Philae’s landing was European accomplishment, something Dordain was equally quick to point out, saying “We are the first, and that will stay forever.” It is a credit well earned, although one which must be accompanied by an asterisk.

Another absolute statement made a few moments later may be subject to question however. Dordain was soon followed by a long line of government officials making short congratulatory speeches. This is a common feature of European missions which is thankfully absent from most US missions, where an official press conference allows some degree of scrutiny.

Speaking a moment after Dordain, a German government representative offered the observation that the accomplishment was a feat no European nation could have made on it own, saying “we could only do it together.” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has said much the same thing about any future manned mission to Mars.

Only time will tell if both statements are true, but it is interesting to note that even as the European Space Agency was taking a victory lap, two American private companies, Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources are planning not only to reach, and land on, small bodies in far away places, (asteroids not comets) but to actually extract resources from them.  While both have a long way to go, and many doubt the soundness of their business plans in the first place, it is worth recalling that Planetary Resources’ first spacecraft, a prototype of the Arkyd asteroid hunting telescope, would have already been in space if not for being lost aboard the ill fated Antares booster which exploded on October 28th.

One or both companies may fail, but it’s a safe bet that neither would even exist if the founders, employees or supporters agreed with the proposition that “we could only do it together.” In fact, one could reasonably stipulate that if this particular sentiment was as widespread as government officials on both sides of the Atlantic seem to think it should be, the NewSpace movement wouldn’t exist at all.

The difference in perspective highlights one of the defining characteristics of NewSpace, whose leaders not only a share a common frustration with the slow pace of public programs, but a determination to do something about it by challenging the assumptions on which they rest. Nothing may be more corrosive than the all too common assertion put forward by representatives of national space agencies, that the most reliable way to reduce the costs of space ventures is to join with other agencies, a strategy which may reduce each nation’s individual contribution, but for which the only certain outcome is that overall costs climb higher.

Far better to reduce the costs by…. actually reducing the costs.

Often that means reducing the size. Planetary Resources, Deep Space Industries, Planet Labs and Skybox Imaging to name just a few, are all built around the idea of pushing the stare of the art in developing small spacecraft. SpaceX, by some accounts, may be entering that arena as well, even as it seeks to dramatically reduce launch costs by introducing both re-usability and radically larger boosters.

It is not always possible to draw a clear line between “Old” and “New” space however, and as the SpaceX story has unfolded, it is the intersection of public policy and private ambitions which has proven remarkably productive.

Consider the length of time it takes conventional deep space missions to unfold. Rosetta was authorized in 1993, launched in 2004 and only reached its destination in 2014. Twenty one years is an eternity for a startup, even if it is in part dictated by orbital mechanics. As one of the dignitaries speaking after the landing observed, some people who had worked on the project were no longer with them.  Presumably, because they died of old age.  Regrettably, such is to be expected when missions take one decade to go from planning to launch, and yet another from launch to destination. Add in another decade for actually working with the data collected, and some grim statistics become apparent. If you happen to be in the prime of your career when a deep space mission is first proposed, you very well may be too old, too daft, or simply too dead to see the results of your work. It is hardly an encouragement for the best and brightest to continue entering the field.

Is all this really waiting really necessary?

It is not as if we are talking Interstellar style trans-generational missions requiring exotic propulsion. This like so much else, could be considered a symptom of high launch costs which preclude more propellant and thus more energetic trajectories to get deep space missions to their destination, coupled with a failure to adequately invest in basic technologies such as cryogenic propellant storage and transfer to allow full tanks prior to departure, or propulsive braking upon arrival. While other technologies exist, such as the solar electric ion propulsion which is powering the Dawn spacecraft, or are in development such as VASIMR, due for a test on ISS next year, the extended wait times of interplanetary transits are begging for an all of the above solution.

Perhaps it is time to stop talking so much about working together on a national level, and start encouraging a little healthy competition on corporate and institutional basis to devise and demonstrate new methods for getting spacecraft to their destinations sooner. Such might have been out of the question even a few years ago for cost reasons alone. Today however, the rapidly growing small and cubesat industries suggest that we are now entering into an era where it is possible to considering sending not just one or two missions out of cis-lunar space every couple of years, but dozens. Eventually, perhaps even hundreds. It also means there is great latitude in figuring out how to get them there.

One of the most enduring traits of our species is that wherever similar, mobile, objects exist; horses, chariots, sailing vessels, automobiles, four post beds, some people will find a way to race them, and still more will bet on the outcome. In looking beyond Earth, we should all “feel the need for speed” because the payoff is more science, more scientists, and much more exciting future.

Posted in: Asteroids, NewSpace

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1 Comment on "Rosetta, Philae and The Need for Speed"

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  1. Pete says:

    “Too old, too daft, or too dead…” all too true.

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