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GeoTalk: Matt Taylor of ESA’s Rosetta mission

GeoTalk: Matt Taylor of ESA’s Rosetta mission

In November 2014, space exploration history was made. Millions of kilometres away, orbiting a piece of ice and rock, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta mission sent its probe Philae to become the first spacecraft to soft-land on a comet.

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After the tense 7-hour wait that followed the separation from the main orbiter, a tweet confirmed that the little lander had successfully completed the first part of its mission. Following a 10-year journey through space, on the back of the Rosetta spacecraft, Philae had successfully touched down on comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.

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The story of Rosetta and Philae will go down in the history books, like others before it, and ignite the imagination of children and adults alike, for whom space is the ultimate frontier.

These great stories of space exploration have inspired the 2016 Geosciences Information For Teachers (GIFT) workshop: The Solar System and Beyond, which took place during the EGU General Assembly in Vienna. The symposium combined presentations on current research by leading scientists with hands-on activities presented by science educators for 80 teachers from 20 different countries.

The keynote lecture was given by Matt Taylor, the Rosetta Project Scientist at ESA, who told the remarkable story of Rosetta and its companion, Philae. I was lucky to catch up with Matt during the conference and we spoke about the GIFT workshop, science fiction, and life after Rosetta (with the mission end now confirmed for September 2016).

 

Matt, thank you for talking to me today. Before we get stuck into details about the Rosetta mission and your time at the conference, could you tell our readers a bit more about your role as project scientist for the mission?

I basically act as a link between the scientific community and ESA. There are many instruments on board Rosetta and Philae, with each of their operations being coordinated by a lead scientist. With such a mix of instruments, all pointing in different directions and with different goals, it’s up to me to coordinate the work of the lead scientists and ensure that we get everything we need to do, done. I try to make sure everyone is happy, or unhappy, as the case may be!

I also provide outreach support for the mission, by giving public lectures and taking part in projects such as the GIFT workshop here at EGU 2016.

The aim of the GIFT workshops is to spread first-hand scientific information to science teachers which they can then use in the classroom to inspire their students and engage them with science. Often, outreach efforts are directed towards the students themselves, so why do you think it is important to inspire teachers about science too?

Matt Taylor speaking at the 2016 General Assembly. Credit: Laura Roberts/EGU

Matt Taylor speaking at the 2016 General Assembly. Credit: Laura Roberts/EGU

It is fundamentally important. Teachers are the ones who really engage school children with a subject. But to do that, it is important to equip them with the right tools, while at the same time trying to engage and inspire them too. That way they can take those tools back to the classroom.

Truth be told, I find it inspiring talking to teachers. After the lecture today I was struck by how motivated and engaged the teachers participating in the GIFT workshop are! One of the teachers, who teaches science at a city school, told me how good it was for them to see science in action [at the conference] and be exposed to STEM subjects.

 

And what is it about space, do you think, that captures so many people’s imagination and is such a great tool to engage the masses with science?

Space has that ‘WOW’ factor. Yet it is also relatable because you can look up and perceive it through the night sky.

Then there is that adventurous aspect to it. It’s the going out there and exploring the unknown. It makes us appreciate we are so tiny and really draws on the idea of ‘where do we come from?’

It is to do with how you package it, and science fiction helps really helps with that. Take the Star Trek films.

And pictures really help. Images allow you to put science ideas across very easily and in a very engaging way – and space gives us a lot of incredible images to work with.

Comet 67P on 14 March 2015 – taken by the NavCam. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0

Comet 67P on 14 March 2015 – taken by the NavCam. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0

There is no doubt that the Rosetta mission caught the attention of the media and public alike! So let’s talk about it a little bit more. What about the mission, would you say is, scientifically speaking, the most exciting?

Comets are the building blocks of life. Studying them has a real connection to the bigger picture stuff: where do we come from, how did the solar system form? For me, the findings of the mission contributing to that has to be the most exciting part.

And on a personal level, what is it like working on the mission and why is it exciting?

It’s, actually, just a normal job.

Day to day the work can be quite boring. A lot of my time is spent coordinating projects, going to meetings… same as anyone else. It’s when I give talks and take part in outreach events such as the ones here at the General Assembly that I am reminded about how cool this mission really is.

Recently, I’ve been excited to work on the final trajectory scenario and deciding how are we going to ‘end’ Rosetta.

Not so cool, are the conspiracy theories and being trolled on twitter, repeatedly, about whether Philae actually ever landed on comet 67P.

You mention the end of Rosetta, what is next for the mission?

The mission will end, operationally, in September. After that we’ll be focusing 100% on the science including ensuring all the data from the mission is in the best format for future scientists. There will be findings coming out of the mission for some time yet! In fact, school students now will be able to work on Rosetta data in graduate school! That’s how important and groundbreaking this mission is.

And once the mission is over, what is next for you?

Chances are I’ll be allocated to another mission, but that will depend on what the science community are pushing for [in terms of new missions] currently and whether my expertise are a good fit.

It’s unlikely I’ll work on something as big as Rosetta again. Funding for space missions is allocated well in advance and there is nothing in the pipe-line on the scale of Rosetta.

But I’m ok with that. I’m actually looking forward to a quieter life. Working on Rosetta has meant letting a few things go by the way side and I’ll now have time to start exercising and looking after my health a little more!

Even though there won’t be another Rosetta, which upcoming missions do you think are ones to watch?

I, personally, don’t think there is anything like Rosetta coming up soon. Rosetta has lots of elements that make it so attractive: the science is exciting, it takes us to the limits of space exploration, it was the first known comet and yet before we got there we had no idea what 67P looked like….

That said there are some exciting missions coming up: JUICE – JUpiter ICy moons Explorer – which is headed to Jupiter in 2022 and will study the gas giant and three of its icy moons. It gets there in

Matt is a self-confessed metal head. Credit: Matt Taylor

Matt is a self-confessed metal head. Credit: Matt Taylor

2030 – the year I’m due to retire!

I’ll also be keeping my eye on BepiColombo, ESA’s first mission to Mercury, and the Solar Orbiter, which will make the closest approach, ever, to the Sun and study solar wind.

I thought we could finish the interview on a light note. In the past I’ve asked scientists I’ve interviewed to come up with a brand new chemical element. If you could invent an element, what would it be and what would it do?

It would have to be Limenium – after Lemmy, frontman of the rock band Motörhead. It would allow you to exude rock & roll!

[As well as being a physicist, Matt is a self-confessed metal head, so much so he was recently awarded the Spirit of the Hammer of the Golden Gods].

 

Interview by Laura Roberts Artal, EGU Communications Officer

 

Further reading:

  • The Rosetta Blog: For all the science prior to and after the comet landing.
  • Find out more about the Rosetta mission: http://rosetta.esa.int/
  • DLR, the German space agency, played a major role in building the Philae lander and runs the lander control centre.
  • The Philae Blog: to recap exciting moments of the little lander’s mission.
  • Ambition, the film: a short science fiction film that tells the story of comet-chasing spacecraft Rosetta

Last chance to enter the EGU Photo Contest!

From top left to bottom right, Erosion Spider by John Clemens, Icebergs at Night in the Antarctic by Eva Nowatzki, Star Trails in Rocky Mountain National Park by Martin Snow, MicROCKScopica – Symplectite in Granulite by Bernardo Cesare (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu).

Some finalists from the 2014 Photo Competition. From top left to bottom right: Erosion Spider by John Clemens, Icebergs at Night in the Antarctic by Eva Nowatzki, Star Trails in Rocky Mountain National Park by Martin Snow, MicROCKScopica – Symplectite in Granulite by Bernardo Cesare (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu).

If you are pre-registered for the 2015 General Assembly (Vienna, 12 -17 April), you can take part in our annual photo competition! Winners receive a free registration to next year’s General Assembly! But hurry, there are only a few days left to enter!

Every year we hold a photo competition and exhibit in association with our open access image repository, Imaggeo and our annual General Assembly. There is also a moving image competition, which features a short clip of continuous geoscience footage. Pre-registered conference participants can take part by submitting up to three original photos and/or one moving image on any broad theme related to the Earth, planetary and space sciences.

How to enter

You will need to register on Imaggeo to upload your image, which will also be included in the database. When you’ve uploaded it, you’ll have the option to edit the image details – here you can enter it into the EGU Photo Contest – just check the checkbox! The deadline for submissions is 1 March.

 

Exhibits at EGU 2014 – The Face of the Earth

This year, the conference will have a theme: The Face of the Earth. Much like a human face, our planet exhibits a huge diversity of shapes and forms, and the 2014 theme celebrates this diversity in geoscience processes – from the Earth’s core to interplanetary space.

In line with this year’s theme, you’ll find exhibits on each of the Earth’s faces – Rocks of the Earth, Waters of the Earth, Life of the Earth, Atmosphere of the Earth, and Space and the Earth – throughout the General Assembly venue. Here’s a hint of what’s in store…

Rocks smallRocks of the Earth

Bring your own rock. In the Entrance Hall we will be collecting rocks from around the world, where they will be placed on display in our very own stone showcase. Their origin will be mapped for all participants to see in an exhibit made by EGU participants, for EGU participants. Don’t forget to bring yours! Check the rock requirements on the General Assembly website.

Space small

Space and the Earth

What we find on Earth is mirrored in other planets – volcanoes on Venus generate a landscape that looks a lot like ours, despite the planet’s wildly different atmosphere and tumultuous tectonic system. Mars’ dusty surface looks a lot like the Earth’s arid landscapes. Search for the similarities between Earth and its neighbours in the Space and the Earth exhibit (Foyer C, Red Level).

Waters small

Waters of the Earth

Water affects virtually all physical, chemical and biological processes, and has shaped a significant part of human history and culture, as well as our lives today. The Waters of the Earth Exhibit will be, quite aptly, on the Blue Level of the conference centre. We don’t want to give all the exhibitions away though! Come down to the basement to see what it’s all about!

Life smallLife of the Earth

Life on Earth began about 4 billion years ago expanding and adapting to almost every environment imaginable: from the poles to the Equator, and from scalding vents on the sea floor to the tops of icy mountains. On the first floor you’ll find the Life of the Earth Exhibition Spot – a truly global view of life on this planet.

Atmosphere small

Atmosphere of the Earth

The Earth’s atmosphere is an incredible thing. It shields us from solar radiation, supplies us with water and shifts weather systems around the world. The atmosphere of the Earth inspires research at all scales, from the tiniest of aerosols to awe-inspiring phenomena that can be seen from space. This exhibit lets you experience the awesomeness of the atmosphere first-hand. Head to Foyer B on the Red Level.

The EGU General Assembly is taking place in Vienna, Austria (27 April-2 May). Find out more at www.egu2014.eu

 

Photo competition at the EGU 2014 General Assembly

If you are pre-registered for the 2014 General Assembly (Vienna, 27 April – 2 May), you can take part in our annual photo competition! Winners receive a free registration to next year’s General Assembly!

The fifth annual EGU photo competition opens on 1 February. Up until 1 March, every participant pre-registered for the General Assembly can submit up three original photos and one moving image on any broad theme related to the Earth, planetary, and space sciences. Shortlisted photos will be exhibited at the conference, together with the winning moving image, which will be selected by a panel of judges. General Assembly participants can vote for their favourite photos and the winning images will be announced on the last day of the meeting.

If you submit your images to the photo competition, they will also be included in the EGU’s open access photo database, Imaggeo. You retain full rights of use for any photos submitted to the database as they are licensed and distributed by EGU under a Creative Commons license. This means that they can be used by scientists for their presentations or publications, for educational purposes and more – as long as they are attributed to the photographer.

You will need to register on Imaggeo so that the organisers can appropriately process your photos. For more information, please check the EGU Photo Contest page on Imaggeo.

Previous winning photographs can be seen on the 20102011, 2012 and 2013 winners’ pages.

In the meantime, get shooting!

One of last year’s winners: “Icebear Rising” by Yiming Wang, distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu.