15 October 2014 – Airbus Defence and Space, the world’s second largest space company, developed the telescope for one of the two Osiris (Optical Spectroscopic and Infrared Remote Imaging System) cameras that were used two weeks ago to locate five potential landing sites for Philae, Rosetta’s 100-kg lander, from which now the most suitable landing site on the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko has been identified. The extreme precision required to carry out this step was made possible using a material in which Airbus Defence and Space has been specialising for many years: silicon carbide.
The decision to use this material was based on criteria that are essential to the success of the Rosetta mission: the material’s lightweight properties meant that the size of the telescope and therefore the precision of the Osiris instrument could be increased. Its extreme thermal stability at low temperature guarantees the unrivalled resolution of the images and also means that an active thermal control system was not necessary, so energy produced by the solar arrays could be used for Rosetta’s other vital functions. SiC gave the Osiris instrument a level of optical performance that enabled mission specialists to analyse the comet’s surface in minute detail and to identify the landing site that holds the greatest interest for scientists.
The Osiris cameras have been developed under the leadership of the MPS (Max-Planck-Institut für Sonnensystemforschung) in Germany, and the SiC structure has been commissioned by the LAM (Laboratoire d’Astrophysique de Marseille) in France.
SiC is a ceramic material that is twice as rigid as steel, ultra light and remarkably resistant to distortion from thermal fluctuations. Like the space telescopes for the Gaia and Herschel missions for the European Space Agency (ESA) and all the instruments developed by Airbus Defence and Space for Earth observation missions, this cutting-edge equipment for Rosetta benefits from the unrivalled expertise the company has developed in the field of SiC telescopes. Along with its partner Boostec, Airbus Defence and Space has created an economic sector that is today crowned with success through a series of space achievements. SiC is produced in the Midi-Pyrénées region being exported worldwide, for many applications in institutional science space missions, as well as in the commercial market (Earth observation satellites).
The Rosetta mission will enable researchers to study the origins of the solar system because, unlike with planets, the matter at the core of the comet has not been altered by tectonics and erosion since it was formed some 5 billion years ago. Celestial bodies of this kind are therefore like frozen archives that scientists are now trying to decode.
Airbus Defence and Space is the prime industrial contractor for the Rosetta mission on behalf of ESA and manages the project from Friedrichshafen in Germany. While British teams have been in charge of the architectural design of the Rosetta platform as well as of the complex propulsion system, France has delivered the avionics in particular, and Spain the medium-gain antenna system. Ultimately, the Rosetta mission brought together an industrial team of over 50 subcontractors from 15 countries.
Airbus Defence and Space is ESA’s key partner in the field of planetary exploration. As such, it not only took the industrial lead for the Giotta space mission, which flew over Halley’s Comet in 1986 and subsequently Grigg-Skjellerup in 1992. It was also responsible for the probes Mars Express and Venus Express in 2003 and 2005, respectively, and also for BepiColombo, due to reach Mercury in 2016.
The company will likewise play a central role in the ExoMars mission (scheduled for 2018), by developing the rover vehicle for this ESA mission.