The grand finale of the Rosetta Mission 

An interview with Amalia Ercoli Finzi, the "comet lady"

29 september 2016

Rosetta’s journey to the cosmos, the mission launched by ESA with the ambitious objective of studying comet 67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko, after chasing it, orbiting around it and finally landing there, began 12 years ago.

The entire mission thrilled and kept the whole world waiting with bated breath, not just scientists and astronomy enthusiasts, but the most compelling moment was surely when on 12 November 2014 the Philae lander module pulled away from the Rosetta space probe: this was the first comet landing in the history of space exploration, the first time a man-made instrument touched the ground of a comet and therefore a success, even for only this reason.

Now Rosetta has reached the grand finale: tomorrow, Friday 30th September, the space probe will begin its descent towards the comet and, once it lands, it will turn off all the on-board instrumentation. The comet is in fact leaving the solar system and heading towards Jupiter and the probe’s solar panels will no longer be able to capture sufficient light to ensure this works.

For this occasion, we met Amalia Ercoli Finzi, an Honorary Professor at the Polimi, one of the leading international experts on Space and Principal Investigator of the SD2 instrument, the drill mounted on the Philae lander in order to perforate the comet’s surface and supply the samples to be analysed.

What does the final act of the Rosetta mission represent for "Amelia, the scientist"?

First of all, I hope it is not actually the final act, but that something further may be done on comets soon. However, this moment represents the final point which we decided to allocate to this mission. I hope the probe manages to descend slowly and to land delicately on the comet’s surface without breaking up too much. Europe did something really exceptional with Rosetta; partners from different countries worked together in a worthwhile and synergistic manner. A positive message for all young people who need to feel European and to give each other a helping hand. 

And for "Amalia,the woman"?

I devoted a great deal of my life to this mission, giving up many hours’ sleep! The instrument on-board Philae has become like a child for me, which I think of with great fondness and love. When we located Philae and examined the pictures, I realised that a small white dot represented precisely the head of my instrument. I must admit that I felt very happy at that moment.

What are the most interesting scientific results of the mission?

We have understood two things: firstly, that water on earth does not derive from this comet as its composition is fundamentally different. Secondly, that the comet’s surface is covered by diffuse and very complex organic molecules, and therefore the hypothesis that comets may actually carry life is truly real! By going to other comets and by understanding which conditions are necessary for life to develop, we could also maybe become creators… but this is something which still has to be seen…

And the technological return of the SD2 instrument you designed? 

THe SD2 instrument built by the Italian company Selex under the wing of the Politecnico di Milano represents a real technological jewel, a solution which may herald future improvements at various levels. The materials employed and the drill’s mechanisms have proved that they can successfully withstand and function even after 12 years’ inactivity under extreme conditions, such as those on the comet. The excellent design therefore allows it to collect samples from any terrain and under any conditions: the system is available for anyone who may need it, we will be very pleased to market it.  

What will you do next, are you thinking of taking a break?

Certainly not! We are already working on many projects: a very complex mission whose objective is the Lunar base, a mission to Mars with the far-in-the future aim of setting up a human colony, a series of missions dedicated to asteroids and small bodies which may be very interesting both because of their composition and as test beds, i.e. as instruments for testing manoeuvres which we can then use in missions to large bodies. There is still a great deal to do and I am ready!