400 Million Kilometres From Home and 18 Years Ago

From Noordwijk to Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko

From Noordwijk to Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko

I always chuckle when someone presents a business plan involving aerospace and expects to get to market within a few years. I left the European Space Agency’s R&D ESTEC in 1996 (the photo to the right was taken in around 1994) and one of the projects I worked on has only just come to life and most of the people I worked with have retired.

A very young looking Tim Harper and his beloved VG ESCALAB

A very young looking Tim Harper and his beloved VG ESCALAB

Almost the the last project I worked on at the European Space Agency was an instrument called MIDAS (Micro-Imaging Dust Analysis System) which is currently 405 million kilometres from Earth, about half way between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars, rushing towards the inner Solar System at nearly 55 000 kilometres per hour. Anyone with any interest in space will have realised that this is connected with the Rosetta mission to rendezvous with comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. 

The problem ESA were trying to solve was measuring the size and shape of the dust particles in the comet tail, and as I was at the time some kind of ‘expert’ on atomic force microscopy I got roped in. It was a simple idea, a sticky wheel, a letter box that would pop open to collect dust, and an array of AFM heads to do the measurement. In theory the measurements should be accurate to a few nanometers, I don;t think anyone expected to achieve atomic resolution on a spacecraft. The tricky part was creating an instrument which would survive not only the stresses of launch but be able to hibernate of almost a decade and spring back to life.

As one of my last inputs was “as a first step can you create something we could drop on the floor without breaking every AFM tip?” it shows what a brilliant job everyone at ESA subsequently did.

While I may have aged, the MIDAS instrument has survived a decade in space virtually unchanged part from a software update or two. One thing we have in common though, we both tweet. I’m @tim_harper and MIDAS is @RosettaMIDAS or https://twitter.com/RosettaMIDAS

MIDAS Schematic

MIDAS Schematic

 

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  1. Pingback: Tim Harper After Dinner Speaking , Space, Technology

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