As the Rosetta space probe successfully deployed its robot Philae on comet ‘67P’, BAE Systems has revealed the cutting edge technology it pioneered which made the €1.3 billion programme possible.
At AI Labs in Great Baddow, Essex, a team of engineers developed an incredibly powerful ‘smartphone’ like system which enable the European Space Agency to communicate with and control the movements of the Rosetta probe when it was more than 500 million kilometres away and moving at speeds of up to 55,000 kilometres an hour. In addition BAE Systems' technology enabled all the imagery of the comet and scientific data Rosetta captured to be received back on Earth.
The system, known as the Intermediate Frequency Modem System (or IFMS for short), is capable of measuring space probes speed to within fractions of a millimetre per second and distance to within a metre anywhere in the Solar System, factors which have been critical to the success of the Rosetta mission.
Discussing the successful landing of Philae, Nick James, BAE Systems' lead engineer for the project, said:
“Approaching, orbiting, and landing on a comet requires delicate and supremely accurate manoeuvres. Comet 67P is a relatively small object about 4 kilometres in diameter, moving at incredible speeds through the solar system. To help make any of this possible, what we have done, in layman’s terms, is create a ‘smart phone’ for inter-planetary communication that gives ESA the ability to communicate with and control the Rosetta probe throughout its 10 year mission, as it travels more than five times Earth’s distance from the Sun.
“The IFMS units sit in ESA ground stations and receive the incredibly weak signals sent from Rosetta and turns them into data that scientists can use. The pictures of the comet you have seen will have been relayed from Philae up to the orbiting Rosetta, then sent across half a billion km of space to Earth, a journey that takes 28 minutes, before being received by IFMS.
“The reliability of our system has also played a key role in the mission’s success. Launched in 2004, Rosetta has spent a decade chasing 67P. In an age where high-tech can often mean ‘short life’, for example renewing your smartphone every 18 months, IFMS was designed to provide cutting edge performance for decades.”
IFMS has supported some of the most successful European enterprises in space including Herschel (the ESA space telescope), Mars Express, and Venus Express. The BAE Systems team are now working on the next generation of IFMS, the Telemetry Telecommand and Control Processor (TTCP) to take the system into future decades.