Rosetta: Europe's Comet Chaser

16 June 2014

Royal Aeronautical Society Headquarters



This lecture will be given by Paolo Ferri, Head of the Mission Operations Department at European Space Operations Centre at the European Space Agency.

The International Rosetta Mission was launched on 2nd March 2004 on its 10 year journey to rendezvous with comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Rosetta will reach the comet in August 2014, orbit its nucleus for about 1.5 years down to distances of a few kilometres and deliver a small lander named Philae onto its surface.

Rosetta is the first mission in the history of spaceflight to attempt a rendezvous with a comet nucleus and a landing onto its surface. From the operations engineering point of view the challenges of these activities are enormous.  Flying in the proximity of the nucleus means dealing with a "dirty" and very dynamic environment, and requires the development of techniques which are unique and unconventional in spaceflight. The landing operations at distances of hundreds of millions of kilometers from Earth have to be fully automated and programmed on the basis of predictions from several hours before the event.  This requires the construction of a model of the comet nucleus and environment that has to be put together a few weeks before the planned landing in November. This is another enormous challenge considering that the comet nucleus and its characteristics (eg. gravity potential, dust and gas flows, surface features) are almost completely unknown and will have to be 'learned' after arrival.

This lecture will briefly introduce the Rosetta mission and its scientific objectives, describing also the spacecraft, its payload and its lander. The mission design and the operations performed in the past 10 years of flight, including the planets’ gravity assists, the asteroid flybys and the long hibernation phase, also a historical first, will be explained in detail. The challenges of the comet’s operations and the techniques and tools which have been developed and adopted to cope with them will also be presented.

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Speaker Details

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

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

Born in Milano, Italy, Paolo Ferri studied theoretical physics at the University of Pavia, Italy.  He joined the European Space Agency (ESA) in 1984 as a Visiting Scientist, working at the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) on the science operations of EXOSAT (X-ray astronomy satellite).  He then moved to the Operations Department in 1986, working as Spacecraft Operations Engineer on the EURECA microgravity mission and then taking over responsibility for the CLUSTER mission operations.

Between 1996 and 2006 he led the ROSETTA mission preparation and, after its launch in 2004, the mission’s flight operations.

In 2006 he became Head of the Solar and Planetary Mission Operations Division at ESOC, responsible for the operation of all ESA solar and planetary missions in flight (including Rosetta, Mars Express, Venus Express, Smart-1, Ulysses and Cluster) as well as those currently being prepared (such as BepiColombo, ExoMars, Solar Orbiter and Juice). In this role he kept the operational role of Flight Director for Rosetta and also supported the launch of GOCE.

In 2013 he became Head of the Mission Operations Department, in charge of operations preparation and execution of all ESA unmanned missions and of the operations and maintenance of the wordwide ESA network of ground stations and control facilities.


Royal Aeronautical Society Headquarters