Andrea Accomazzo, a quiet-spoken Italian aerospace engineer, was born in the Alps; maybe that’s why he has always had a thing about heights. He tried being an airforce pilot, but it wasn’t enough. Today his name lives among the stars, for he was the flight director for Europe’s most ambitious space mission to date: the pioneering Rosetta mission that landed a fridge-sized probe on the surface of a comet.
For two decades Rosetta has been part of Accomazzo’s life, taking him from Italy to the European Space Agency (ESA) center in Darmstadt, Germany in 1999.
“For me this was sort of getting a dream made into reality,” he says. Rosetta fired into space on March 2nd, 2004. Its destiny was a rendezvous, on 20 November 2014, with the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, where the 100kg Philae probe was to detach and land on the comet’s lifeless surface.
“People from the outside think the big deal was the landing phase,” he says. “But what came before was the highlight of what we’ve done.”
For Accomazzo, a speaker at the 2015 DLD conference in Munich, there were two anxious earlier moments: waking Rosetta up from its three-year hibernation, and then piloting the craft around the rubber-duck-shaped comet to locate the landing spot for Philae.
To save power in its long flight to the comet, after completing several early missions, Rosetta was switched into hibernation mode in June 2011. “If you think about it without the emotional part, you say this computer was designed to fly in space. Why should anything go wrong? Of course the psychological side is very different.”
Like Scoring A Goal
There is a photograph of a jubilant Accomazzo punching the air as, on January 20, 2014, the spaceship awoke and re-established communications. Then came the hard part. “We had to learn to fly around the comet so that we could come to the landing site,” says Accomazzo. “This for me was technically the most difficult part.”
It went flawlessly, he says. But while everything about the mission had been planned and re-planned there was always one phase over which the team could have no influence: the landing.
“Our landing target was a circle in the order of 500-meter radius. Over that surface there were for sure obstacles on the surface that the lander would not survive, like a boulder, or a slope or something like this,” he says. “In this we had to be lucky. There was nothing we could do.”
Luckily, “the landing itself was fantastic. I like playing football. When we came out of hibernation in January it was like scoring a goal. But when it landed it was like the end of the game and we have won. The emotions are very deep.”
As everyone who follows space research knows, the landing wasn’t a complete success. When Philae’s anchoring systems failed, the craft bounced, coming to land in a shady site, masking the solar arrays designed to keep it running.
Accomazzo is not despondent. While the resting place of Philae is not where they had chosen, it may actually have provided more valuable data in its short life than had everything gone flawlessly.
Never Seen Star Wars
“Where we would have landed was a flat area,” he says. “Flat areas of the comet are covered with dust. Philae ended up where they can really see the material of the comet and they are very excited by this. If they had landed in the target site, the mission would have been 100% successful but it would have been boring from a scientific point of view.”
There is a slender hope that perhaps Philae may yet awaken when the comet moves closer to the Sun in March. If it does emerge, which Accomazzo says would be “absolutely incredible,” he won’t be calling the shots. He has been promoted and as ESA’s head of interplanetary missions is worrying about missions to the planets.
Being the head of interplanetary exploration makes him sort of the Captain Kirk of Europe. But Accomazzo confesses his biggest secret. He is not a science fiction movie fan. “I have never really watched it. I get confused which is Star Trek and which is Star Wars?”
That’s right. The flight director for Europe’s most successful space mission has never, ever watched Star Wars.