Out of this World: How a York University grad helped put a probe on a distant comet

The late American astronaut Neil Armstrong changed the world when he became the first man to walk on the moon in 1969. The historical Apollo 11 moon landing has been described by Chris Hadfield, the first Canadian to walk in space in 2001, as a “watershed moment” that inspired him and many others who followed him to suit up for space.

Jakub Urbanek (BASC ’09) was not one of them. But like Armstrong and Hadfield, Urbanek’s share of awe-inspiring space adventure has been well documented around the world. He is part of a team that recently made history by successfully landing the first-ever robotic probe on a comet.

“It’s remote control,” Urbanek says. “We were sitting here in Germany sending up commands to the spacecraft.”

The Rosetta spacecraft, also known as Europe’s comet chaser, launched into space in March 2004 to track down Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, a relatively small object of about four kilometres in diameter and moving at a speed as great as 135,000 kilometres per hour. At that time, Urbanek was in high school and was not particularly interested in space. But that same year at a mini-orientation and campus tour at York University, he made an “unexpected decision” to study space engineering.

“I was hooked,” Urbanek recalls. “The program at York just seemed really interesting and novel.”

Fast-forward to 2014, Urbanek, an operations engineer with the flight control team at the European Space Agency (ESA), was in the main control room of the European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany, tracking and operating Rosetta’s release of a probe lander named Philae and its descent to Comet 67P. Rosetta had been orbiting across the solar system for 10 years; each tele-communications message between the spacecraft and ground control takes 30 minutes to transmit. After a decade-long journey hundreds of millions of kilometres from Earth, the agency’s final manoeuvre on Nov. 12, 2014 to land Philae proved to be a thrilling moment in space study.

“It was incredibly emotional, exciting, and nerve-racking,” Urbanek says. “There were a few go-no-go situations during the 13 hours leading up to the separation of Philae from the mothership. It then took more than seven hours for Philae to touchdown on the comet, but the event went pretty smoothly.”

Philae’s primary mission was to last three days, during which the robot sent analysis of samplings from the comet to Rosetta, attempted to drill into the ground, and sent back images of the comet’s surface. With data Philae delivered, scientists have been analyzing to determine the composition and structure of Comet 67P, ultimately investigating the role it may have played in the beginnings of life on Earth.

“He did quite a bit of science during those three days,” Urbanek says of the lander. “It was action-packed.”

However, with its primary battery designed to last only about 60 hours, Philae, the size of a household washing machine, went into hibernation. It had bounced on landing and ended up in the shadow of a cliff in rough terrain. Its exact location is unknown. Without the solar power it needs to operate, Philae is expected to wake up and reestablish a communications link with Rosetta when the comet nears the sun in the spring. On Feb. 14, Rosetta performed a special flyby, passing within just six kilometres of the surface of the comet, but sighting Philae was not part of the event.

“The close flyby was not intentionally planned for Valentine’s Day, but it was a bit amusing,” Urbanek says. “Rosetta and Philae have been flying together for more than 10 years and they will never return to Earth. In a way, I suppose Philae is kind of like Rosetta’s child.”

After working with the Rosetta mission for the last 2.5 years, Urbanek, who has a master’s degree in aerospace studies from the University of Toronto and trained with ESA after graduation, can’t help but humanize Rosetta and Philae just a little bit.

“We monitor the spacecraft – we take care of Rosetta. We are responsible for it and we do build up a close connection with the robots, but it’s not quite a human connection,” Urbanek says. “But for some of my colleagues who have been working on this mission for the last 10 years, Rosetta and Philae are like their children.”

Asked if he would ever suit up for space like Armstrong and Hadfield did, Urbanek answers without hesitation, “If I was offered the opportunity, I wouldn’t say no.”

This article appeared in the Spring 2015 edition of York U, the magazine of York University. Reprinted with permission.