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Space Blog

SSTL wheels in for Rosetta comet-chaser mission

After 957 days of deep-space hibernation ESA’s comet-chasing mission, Rosetta, is finally set to wake up automatically on 20 January 2014.
Rosetta and Philae at comet  (Credit ESA-J Huart 2013)

The Rosetta spacecraft has been travelling for more than ten years towards its target, a comet called Churyumov–Gerasimenko, which it is due to reach in August this year. Once there, the spacecraft will map the comet’s surface and then in November Rosetta will dispatch a lander for close inspection of the comet’s nucleus. This is when the excitement really begins for us at SSTL because the lander, Philae, carries an SSTL momentum wheel, delivered for the mission way back in 2001.

The momentum wheel on-board Philae is there to provide gyroscopic stabilisation for the lander as it makes its descent to the comet’s surface. A momentum wheel is a wheel connected to a motor which is spun up to a high rotational speed – this provides what is referred to as an angular momentum bias to the lander. The bias helps stabilise the lander in the same way that a spinning gyroscope will stand on its end.

SSTL momentum wheel

The SSTL wheel design was a great choice for this mission because of its special bearing which is particularly good for long periods of storage in vacuum. The bearing makes use of a solid lubricant which can’t evaporate into space, unlike the oil used by most wheels in space and on the ground. The wheel is also extremely power efficient, only consuming about 6W, which is really important on such a power-limited spacecraft.

Philea lander (credit ESA)

After the rendez-vous with Churyumov–Gerasimenko, data from the lander will be beamed back to the Rosetta spacecraft as it follows the comet through the Solar System, monitoring conditions as it warms up heading towards its closest approach to the Sun, in August 2015. 

So the waking up of the Rosetta spacecraft is just the start of another countdown for us here – ticking off the days until November when Philae is released to begin its journey towards the surface of the comet.

You can follow Rosetta and Philae on twitter @ESA_Rosetta and @philae2014

or on facebook





17 January 20140 Comments1 Comment

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