After 10 years and billions of kilometers traveled, the Rosetta Spacecraft's successful rendezvous last week with the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gersaimeno was a breeze for the mission control team compared to its next task: deploying the Philae Lander to the comet.
"Our biggest challenge in flying is being able to predict as accurately as possible the future orbit of the spacecraft, some three or four days out," says Andrea Accomazzo, Rosetta flight director and head of the Planetary Missions Division at the European Space Agency (ESA). He heads up the team of 28 full-time engineers responsible for the mission's flight dynamics and control.
By studying images of the comet, Accomazzo says that engineers are able to reconstruct where the spacecraft was when the image was taken and use this data to predict where it will be. But he adds that there can be uncertainties of up to one kilometer in those predictions, which are made three to four days out.
And one kilometer over 20 kilometers is a significant angle of displacement, sufficient enough, he stresses, for the Philae Lander to miss the comet entirely when it attempts to land.
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