8 years ago on 6 August 2014 a European Space Agency (ESA) spacecraft, Rosetta, reached its destination of the Jupiter-family comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko following a 10-year journey through the Solar System. But how did they do it?

Communicating with spacecraft

Approaching, orbiting, and landing on a comet requires delicate and very accurate manoeuvres, the target comet was a relatively small object about 4 kilometres in diameter, moving at speeds as great as 55,000 kilometres per hour. Our Intermediate Frequency Modem System (IFMS) helped make it possible. 
IFMS provided ESA with the capability to communicate with and control the Rosetta probe. It was used by them to measure the position and speed of the spacecraft on its journey to comet 67P, as well as receive the signals from Rosetta to help produce the amazing images seen from the mission. 
The system addressed two key challenges. 
  1. The first was to navigate the spacecraft during its 10 year mission which saw it travel around 800 million kilometres away from the Sun and close to the orbit of Jupiter. IFMS was so powerful it could measure the speed to within fractions of a millimetre per second and the distance of spacecraft to within a metre anywhere in the Solar System.
  2. The second was to create a very sensitive and clever receiver that could pick-up the incredibly weak signals sent back to Earth and convert them into data that can be used to communicate the findings of the mission. The real images seen of the Comet will have been received by IFMS.
Whilst the Rosetta mission officially ended in September 2016, much like the exploration of space, our technology innovation never ceases. 

Always innovating, our space technology is constantly evolving

The IFM System used to support the Rosetta mission has evolved and using recent improvements in signal processing hardware, we can now provide a Tracking, Telemetry and Command Processor (TTCP) system that has improved measurement accuracy and data rates by a factor of more than ten, as well as supporting much more complex signal formats. It also can support up to four simultaneous downlinks allowing ESA to track multiple spacecraft using a single system. 
Our TTCP system can download information with data rates of up to 300 Mbps, from 1.5 million km away and can measure the distance of a spacecraft to within 1cm anywhere in the solarsystem. It is already in use at the UK Goonhilly Earth Station and with the European Space Agency, who are using it track the BepiColumbo mission as it flies by various planets like Venus and Mercury. 
We’ve been in space for over two decades and we’re working towards a secure space domain, to enable future prosperity. 
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Nick Haigh
Nick Haigh
Head of Media Relations

+44 (0) 7525 390982