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Out of this world

Scientists at work: from Rosetta mission control as Philae lands

No nails left to bite. EPA

It has been a busy few weeks. The last scientific experiments in support of forthcoming results. The final, detailed command sequences uploaded to Rosetta. Hotels and flights booked. As each successive journalist asks “Are you nervous about the landing?”, the level of trepidation rises. This morning, I couldn’t eat breakfast. Just coffee.

First interview of the day was with Today, the BBC Radio 4’s flagship news programme. Had to do it by Skype on my mobile. Catastrophe. Someone else phones me while I’m on air. Panic. Forget which button to press. Hope it’s not symptomatic of how the rest of the day goes.

The day is stretching interminably. Nothing to do but wait, talk to or avoid journalists. Have another coffee. It’s like rocket fuel … sorry, bad analogy.

Check that the rest of the team has arrived safely at Köln, the Operations Centre for the Philae Lander. Check the Just Giving page to Shave a Space Scientist, trying to raise £2000 to get my husband and fellow scientist Ian Wright a haircut, as well as help the fight against pancreatic cancer.

The waiting wouldn’t have been so bad if the rumours didn’t keep sweeping the building. It has been postponed for 24 hours. The landing craft release latches are stuck. Philae won’t switch on. All false. All raising the blood pressure. Another coffee.

The first of the day’s press conferences. Final go/no-go was at 08:30. It is go.

Now there is no going back. Philae has launched. Or dropped. Or risen. When there’s no gravity, it is hard to say which way is up. We won’t know until 10:00, when the signal reaches us, whether the release was successful.

More waiting follows more coffee. Now even more concern than when Philae was attached to Rosetta. Trajectory pre-programmed, landing protocol pre-determined, rumours that thruster isn’t working turn out to be true. What does this mean?

Philae will have to rely on its harpoon and the grappling hooks on its feet. Control centre seems cool with this, so why should we worry? Lots of images from navigational cameras, which show Churyumov-Gerasimenko’s surface – the boulder-strewn landscapes intersected by cliffs and canyons. Trying not to imagine what happens if one if the legs hits a boulder.

Press office gets in touch. BBC local radio want ten interviews, one after the other, in an hour. First one scheduled for 10 am – when the landing signal should come through. Radio stations from Scotland to the Channel Islands, with all points in between. They’ll have to wait.

Big cheer – we have the signal. Separation was successful. Definitely no going back. Time for another coffee before lots of excited broadcasting. Feel I ought to be tweeting, but too busy.

Spirited away to do TV news broadcast. Scheduled for just after midday. Watch the cheering as Philae re-establishes contact. Relief, at least the lander can talk to Rosetta.

Agilkia landing site for Philae. ESA/Rosetta/NavCam

Lunch – can’t face it. Another coffee. Only two hours to go before the next press conference. No fingernails left. Ian’s thumbnail with the comet painted on it is looking a bit chipped. Our son texts “good luck”. I text him back “have you fed the cats?”

Another coffee. Check my e-mail. Messages of support from my mum, from the Vice Chancellor and from the Dean. Message asking me to review a manuscript about clay on Mars – no room in my brain for that at the moment. Message offering cheap holidays – could really do with one of those – but when? An opportunity to attend a conference about the Higher Education landscape. Estates are re-surfacing the East Car Park. The window cleaners will be in the building next week. This is all the usual stuff. Don’t these people realise that Philae is in mid-flight?

Presenter ask Mrs Gerasimenko in Cologne: “Do you like your comet?” Mrs Gerasimenko says, “It reminds me of a boot.”

It’s 30 minutes from knowing about the landing. On the comet, though, we’re moving in for the kiss. It’s agnosing that the signal takes 30 minutes to reach Earth. No more interviews. Getting more nervy. Everyone has stood up, but nothing to see. Just nervous people in headphones staring anxiously at screens.

I’ve lost Ian. Is he in the control room? How is he feeling? We were apart for launch. And apart again for landing.

People in control room are looking anxious. Are they deciding whether to send out for pizza now, or after Philae’s landing? All are trying to lip read what is being said in mission control.

Yes, yes, yes. Philae has landed. Bang on time. From the control room: “We have telemetry. Andrea, do you want to make a statement? Yes, Philae is sitting on the rock.”

Break out the bubbly … no, got to wait to hear from Ian. He tells me Ptolemy, the instrument on-board Philae, is working – looks like we are getting data. Now the hard work really starts.

Post-landing exhaustion. Everyone wandering round, a bit dazed. Lots of happy faces, though. ESA has done a magnificent job. The engineers and scientists that got us so far should reward themselves with an early night. That is, if the adrenalin surge dies down!

The instrument scientists, though, should be staying up all night. This is when our job begins. Ptolemy, the instrument that I am involved with, has already sniffed the comet. Now waiting for the results to come through. Relieved to know it’s working! Waiting for the first photographs of the surface. Rumour says that Philae is on its side.

Two hours later. All gone a bit flat. No pictures from Philae. Data, yes, from Ptolemy and Cosac. Great data from Ptolemy, but needs reducing and interpreting. But we have data, which is fantastic.

But press conference postponed. Stephan Ulamec makes proud boast that Philae landed twice. Seems to be a problem that harpoon might not have fired, and not certain if screws on feet are holding. Philae landed, then bounced. We hope it landed back on the surface. But Rosetta now below the horizon, so no radio contact possible. Have to wait until tomorrow.

Going back to the hotel. The day is over. Bubbly back on ice. Pass me the coffee.

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