RJ Mitchell Lecture 2017: Rosetta and Beyond - ESA's Interplanetary Missions Operations

21 February 2017

University of Southampton


The European Space Agency has truly entered the era of interplanetary mission operations only about 20 years ago, when the Rosetta mission was approved and the necessary infrastructure developed to achieve such a pioneering mission. Since the beginning of this century, thanks to the experience gained with Rosetta and the other two planetary missions Mars and Venus Express, ESA has become a major world player in interplanetary operations, with an infrastructure and a know-how that put it on the same level as NASA in most of the fields of solar system exploration.

Rosetta is the first and only mission in the history of spaceflight to rendezvous with a comet nucleus and drop a lander module onto its surface. From an operations engineering point of view the challenges of this mission were enormous. Flying in the proximity of the nucleus required the development of an accurate model of the comet and the forces acting on the spacecraft that it generates. This had to be done while the spacecraft was already flying in this unknown environment, a highly risky and unconventional way of flying in space. The Philae lander delivery operations at a distance of 511 million kilometers from Earth was the highlight of the mission, but the two years operations in proximity of the comet, completed with the final landing of the mother spacecraft on the surface on 30 September 2016 have achieved revolutionary scientific results in comet and solar system science.

After Rosetta ESA is focusing again on Mars, with the two ExoMars missions, in cooperation with Russia: the first one already orbiting Mars since October 2016. After the only partial success of its test landing module Schiaparelli, which crashed on the surface but managed to validate most of the systems required to complete this operation, the second ExoMars mission, scheduled to launch in 2020, will land a scientific platform and a rover on the surface.

Other missions in preparation for the coming years are BepiColombo, a mission to Mercury in cooperation with Japan; Solar Orbiter, for close observation of the Sun; and finally Juice, a mission to the icy moons of Jupiter, scheduled for launch in 2022 and arrival at the Jupiter system in 2030.

This lecture will recall the Rosetta mission and its spectacular and unique operations, describe the ExoMars missions and their operational and development status. Finally the future missions to Mercury, Sun and Jupiter and their operational challenges will be briefly introduced.

The highlights of the two years operations at the comet and the plans for the spectacular mission termination will also be described.

(Main image courtesy and copyright of ESA/ATG Medialab)


18.00 - Drinks Reception
19.00 - Lecture Starts

Speaker Details

Paolo Ferri, Head, Mission Operations Department, European Space Operations Centre, European Space Agency

Paolo Ferri studied Theoretical Physics at the University of Pavia (Italy)

He joined the European Space Agency in ESOC in 1984, as visiting scientist working on the science operations of the EXOSAT X-ray astronomy satellite

He moved to the spacecraft operations field in 1986, as operations for the EURECA microgravity mission, then as operations manager for Cluster.

In 1996 he was nominated operations manager on the preparation of the Rosetta mission, which he led at different levels of responsibility for 20 years, until its completion in September 2016. As of 2006 he became Head of the Solar and Planetary Missions Operations Division. In this period he was Flight Director for Rosetta, Venus Express and GOCE.

Since February 2013 he is Head of the Mission Operations Department, in charge of mission operations preparation and execution for all ESA unmanned missions. As of today there are 17 satellites in flight under the responsibility of his Department, and 10 more space missions in the areas of science and Earth observation are in preparation for launch before the end of the decade.

For the historical achievements of the Rosetta mission Dr. Ferri and his team have been granted various awards, among which in 2014 the Sir Arthur Clarke Award, the Team Gold Medal of the Royal Aeronautical Society and the Laurels for Team Achievement of the International Academy of Astronautics in 2015.


Admission is free and all are welcome to attend but advance registration is required by clicking the Book Now button below or emailing solent.raes@outlook.com.

Location Details

University of Southampton

Turner Sims Concert Hall
Highfield Campus
University of Southampton
Southampton, SO17 1BJ