Passing by the red planet on the way to somewhere else

Mars from the Rosetta spacecraft

Image credit: CIVA/Philae/ESA Rosetta

The picture above was taken by a camera onboard the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft as it passed by the planet Mars. But Mars is not the mission goal. Rosetta’s complex trajectory sees it swing past Mars, and also its home planet several times while on route to the grandly-named comet 64P/Churymov-Gerasimenko, which it will reach in 2014.

In the year 2000, in between two fixed-term research jobs in space science, I worked with the European Space Agency as an interplanetary spacecraft flight dynamics engineer at ESOC in Darmstadt. This was before any of ESA’s interplanetary probes had actually been launched. I was involved more in mission planning and validation.

The reason Rosetta has come up now is that ESA flight dynamics engineers recently made a major corrective manoeuvre to fine tune the spacecraft’s second Earth approach.

When I saw the photo above I was struck by how matter of fact it seems. It’s like someone taking a snap of the scenery from the inside of a car whizzing down the highway. I particularly like the juxtaposition of natural features in the Mawrth Vallis region of the planet with the mechanical detail of the solar panel.

In just a few years ESA has become a veteran of interplanetary spaceflight, and so far its missions have all been hugely successful in terms of scientific output.

The picture below is of Mars from the ground, taken by a camera on NASA’s Spirit rover by the Gusev crater in May 2005. A blue sunset – strange but stunning. Thanks to Caspar Henderson for alerting me to this one.

Martian sunset viewed from NASA's Spirit crater by the Gusev crater