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Rights: © Copyright 2015. University of Waikato. All Rights Reserved.
Published 27 August 2015

The Rosetta spacecraft needed to be able to survive the rigours of launch and extreme temperatures from -200°C to 300°C. Avionics engineer Warwick Holmes talks about his role in building and testing the spacecraft for the Rosetta Mission.



This is my role on the spacecraft – this is the year 2000 – I worked on it for 4 and a half years. I was involved in testing most of the software on the spacecraft, so I was doing the building, the testing and then the launch up until 2004.

When we were building the spacecraft, we had to test it in a representative environment to be sure that the spacecraft would survive the rigours of deep space. And the thing to notice here, this is in a 2000 m3 vacuum chamber. We pump all the air out. In the walls here, we flood them with liquid nitrogen to get it down to -200°C, and we actually then have to test the spacecraft to have a range of more than 300°C.

So imagine you’ve got a TV set. You put it in the fridge, and it works in the freezer. You’re thinking, OK, that’s all right. Well then, put it in the oven at 300° and see if it works. This is what Rosetta had to endure for 10 years. There’s an enormous temperature range as we’re going towards the Sun and then further away.

This is a view of the lander on a vibration table. This is where we shake all the components of the orbiter and the lander to enormous vibration levels to survive the rigours of the launch of the rocket, even though we then drift for 10 years in zero G, which is the most benign environment you can imagine. The launch is absolutely horrendous, so we’ve got to design it to survive the launch.

The Science Learning Hub would like to acknowledge the following for their contribution to this resource:
Warwick Holmes
Lecture video footage courtesy of the University of Waikato
Images of testing Rosetta and Philae and footage of rocket launch courtesy of ESA – European Space Agency