The Interview: Laurence O’Rourke, Rosetta mission flight control team

23 Sep 2015

Laurence O'Rourke of the ESA. Image via Peter Kretschmar

Following his talk on the Rosetta mission with Astronomy Ireland, Westmeath native and member of the European Space Agency (ESA) Laurence O’Rourke, talks to about the mission and how they want to crash into an asteroid’s moon next.

While much of the face of the ESA is based in the larger European countries like Germany and Spain, Ireland is quietly playing its part in major European space endeavours in roles both large and small.

And, quite frankly, there are fewer missions as large in space exploration over the past few years than the Rosetta spacecraft’s mission to fly the billions of kilometres through open space and orbit Comet 67p.

In November 2014, after years of waiting, the spacecraft finally entered the orbit of the comet where it amazed the world as it detached the Philae lander and descended slowly towards the comet’s surface.

And throughout that day and in the weeks prior to the landing, the ESA’s Laurence O’Rourke was providing an Irish flavour to a Europea-wide achievement serving as a member of Rosetta’s flight control team.

The graduate

From just outside Mullingar, Laurence was keen on all things space as a child and was an avid  stargazer with his telescope throughout his teens, which then unsurprisingly led to university, where he studied a dual honours degree in physics and maths at what was then called NUI Maynooth.

After this, he went on to do a master’s degree in microelectronics in University College Cork (UCC), which, Laurence tells, was largely responsible for him getting the chance to work at the ESA in 1996 in its technology centre in the Netherlands.

From there, he got his chance, along with many other graduates from across Europe, to work on satellites such as the TeamSat satellite that launched in 1997 and was the first payload to be delivered into orbit aboard the Ariane-5 rocket.

TeamSat satellite

Some of the graduate team that Laurence O’Rourke worked with on the TeamSat satellite. Image via ESA

Laurence and the rest of the team he was a part of then got the chance to fly to the ESA’a launch site in Kourou, French Guiana and watch the rocket take off.

“Having your hands in building a satellite and watching it go into space was quite incredible,” he said of his experience.

This was then followed by the William Herschel Space Telescope, which he was involved with shortly after, which he rather understatedly explains as being “quite amazing in what it could do in that it would look for water in faraway galaxies and interstellar space, which was quite cool”.

Being a scientist and engineer with Rosetta

While still working on the Envisat satellite in the ESA’s facility in Germany in 2002, Laurence was also called upon for the now infamous and ambitious Rosetta mission to land a craft on a comet for the first time in human history.

Given that it would take years for the craft to drift through space, Laurence was called upon to be the mission’s operations engineer, which allowed him to control components of the craft from millions of kilometres away.

Components including the 2.2m-long high-gain antenna aboard the Rosetta craft, which was its link with the researchers back home. “I was the first person to move that in space,” he says with an understandable hint of pride.

Nearly a decade later, Laurence returned to the Rosetta team to not only to control its instrumentation as it prepared to launch the lander, but also to be the ESA’s eyes and ears on the ground as the French and German space agencies operated Philae.

Describing his role, Laurence says he’s something of an oddity in that he combines two roles typically seen as being worlds apart.

“I’m the strangest thing you can have in that I’m a scientist and an engineer, which is seen as quite contradictory in some ways, but that’s what I am,” he says.“I do science and I do use instruments to look for scientific results, but I’m also an engineer in that I understand how telescopes are built and I use engineering on a daily basis.”

Laurence O'Rourke Rosetta

Michael Küppers (left) and Laurence O’Rourke (right) with a 1:4 scale model of Rosetta and Philae. Image via ESA

As many familiar with the mission know, the Philae lander experienced something of a hiccup as it made its attempted landing on Comet 67p when it was found to have ‘bounced’ on the surface before falling on its side.

As a result, it appeared the instrumentation aboard Philae would only have a limited amount of power to perform its tests, which, Laurence says, came as a surprise after what was thought of as an initial success.

“What we were expecting was it to land but there was also a slight time delay between the data being received where [members of the team] were celebrating saying we landed and then there was us at the lander control centre where we see the data that was coming in [which] was showing it didn’t land.

“Everybody was celebrating and we’re actually thinking, ‘eh no, not at least as we can see’, which was strange.”

Despite the apparent ups-and-downs, he says that he wasn’t nervous: “It was quite an experience. I don’t think we can say we were nervous, we were just living something that had never been done before. We had no idea what we were to expect, you just live it and enjoy it in a lot of ways.”

Rosetta‘s future and aiming to hunt asteroids

As for the future of the Rosetta mission, Laurence says that they will continue to monitor any scientific data that comes from Comet 67p, but by September next year they expect the craft and comet to be too far away from the sun’s solar energy and that it will power down.

But before it does that, Laurence and the rest of the ESA team plan to land Rosetta on the comet for its final swan song.

“It will be less of a crash landing than the lander because we control it down. In the end it will touch the surface, it won’t hammer the surface as it descends at 1cm per second, which is pretty slow,” Laurence says.

As for what the future holds for him, Laurence says that he has his fingers and toes crossed for a mission dubbed AIM, which was covered earlier this year by, to get the green light.

Aim mission

A graphic of AIM approaching the Didymos binary system. Image via ESA–Science Office

The joint NASA and ESA mission could potentially save our planet from annihilation from an earthbound asteroid by colliding a NASA spacecraft into the tiny moon of an asteroid to tests its response.

First of all however, the ESA will provisionally fly a craft to the asteroid in 2018 and enter its orbit where it will send a craft down to its surface and monitor the effects of the NASA impact nearby.

“When everything is hunky dory in principle then the NASA satellite would have launched and will be powering through space towards the asteroid and we will move out of the way to a certain distance,” Laurence explains.

And while he is unlikely to find the time to assist in the mission, Laurence speaks quite highly of his friend and colleague Dr Susan McKenna-Lawlor who is working on getting the Irish craft Cumar into the space, in what would be the first Irish space mission, which was first announced at Inspirefest earlier this year.

“I have a lot of admiration for Susan and think she’s extremely resourceful and it’s an excellent idea and if anyone can do it I know Susan can do it.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic