Rosetta arrives in South America
13 September 2002The final leg of Rosetta's four-year race to the launch pad has now begun. After a 6500 km trip across the Atlantic Ocean, ESA's comet chaser arrived safely yesterday evening at the Kourou spaceport in French Guiana. The feverish activity to prepare the unique spacecraft for its January launch has now transferred from the European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, to the tropical jungle of South America.
After months of intensive environmental tests and technical check-outs, Rosetta was lifted into a huge, protective metal container on 2 September, ready for its journey to the launch site on the other side of the world. As a final precaution, engineers tested the spacecraft's fuel tanks to ensure that they were completely leak-proof, then Rosetta was confined inside its nitrogen purged container.
"This room-sized container held the complete spacecraft, including the lander and the large dish of the high gain antenna," explained Walter Pinter-Krainer, Principal Assembly, Integration and Verification Engineer of Rosetta. "Only the folded solar arrays, which were shipped to the Kourou spaceport a few weeks earlier, were not attached to the orbiter."
On 10 September, the cocooned spacecraft was transferred to a trailer for the slow overnight trip from ESTEC in Noordwijk to Schiphol airport near Amsterdam. Illuminated by the flashing lights of the police escort as it passed along deserted country roads toward the motorway, the precious cargo eventually arrived safely at its destination.
Later that day, the container and ground support equipment - 62 tonnes in all - were gingerly loaded onto a Russian Antonov 124 transport plane ready for transportation to the South American launch centre. After a 16=-hour journey, which included a stop-over at the Oporto airport in Portugal and a five-hour time zone difference, the giant air freighter touched down at Cayenne airport, close to the Kourou spaceport, in the early evening.
Immediately on arrival, the Antonov was unloaded and the spacecraft was taken to the S1 building, one of the specialist payload facilities at the launch site, where it was greeted by teams of experts from ESA, Astrium-Germany and Alenia. Over recent weeks, these engineers have been setting up the electrical links, internet communications and essential test or mechanical equipment that was shipped to the launch centre on an Arianespace supply vessel in late August.
"With the move from Europe to Kourou, we have now entered the most exciting phase of the Rosetta programme so far - the launch campaign," said Walter Pinter-Krainer. "Everything is looking good and we are on schedule for the launch."
Over the next four months Rosetta will be undergoing a rigorous, step-by-step programme of flight preparation, leading to the mating between the comet chaser and the upper stage of the Ariane-5 launch vehicle on 2 January 2003. The long, hard road from initial design to launch will culminate 10 days later, when Rosetta finally sets off on its unique mission to explore Comet Wirtanen.