UK Mini-laboratory catches up with double comet
05 Aug 2014



Mini-laboratory developed and built at the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council’s (STFC) Rutherford Appleton Laboratory is due to rendezvous with a comet...


Professor Richard Holdaway, Director of STFC RAL Space.
(Credit: STFC)


5 August 2014 –  a mini-laboratory developed and built at the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council’s (STFC) Rutherford Appleton Laboratory is due to rendezvous with a comet.

On board the European Space Agency’s Rosetta orbiter is a lander named Philae, which houses a suite of instruments including Ptolemy, an award-winning evolved gas analyser instrument the size of a shoebox and weighing 4.5 kg.

Designed by teams from STFC RAL Space and the Open University, Ptolemy will collect data to analyse the relationship between water ice on comets and the Earth’s oceans. It will also study the nature of organic material on the comet and use this to investigate the relationship with similar materials from other Solar System bodies.

Launched in 2004, the Rosetta spacecraft has the mission of reaching comet 67 P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. In January 2014, Rosetta awoke from its period of hibernation and now the €1bn spacecraft will close in on the comet, orbit around it and then send down the lander.

“This is an historic and hugely exciting moment for the Rosetta Mission,” said Professor Richard Holdaway, Director of STFC RAL Space. “After 10 years of travel through space from Earth, Rosetta finally arrives at the comet and will land a unique shoe-box sixed chemistry set designed and built by RAL Space and The Open University. We are very proud of our involvement and eagerly anticipate receiving the first results.”

Although the technology on the space orbiter is now ten years old, back here on Earth that technology has been developed further and is now being used to not only help diagnose cancers but to also improve the effectiveness of vaccinations.

The Rosetta mission is extremely ambitious and unique. It is the first spacecraft to undertake a long-term exploration of a comet at close quarters, and will be the first to attempt to land on a comet. As the orbiter closes in on the comet it will deploy the lander, which will attach itself to comet’s surface so that the instruments can collect and analyse their data.

Dr John Davies, an astronomer at STFC’s UK Astronomy Technology Centre in Edinburgh, said, “Once the orbiter arrives at the comet and examines from close proximity how a frozen comet is transformed by the warmth of the Sun, the next step is to place the mission’s lander on the comet – that’s likely to be in November. The lander is simply pushed away from Rosetta and falls towards the comet, so the tricky bit is dropping it at the correct moment so that it lands on the bit of the comet you most want to reach.”

Once on the comet's surface, Ptolemy will be provided with just a few “grains” of solid sample which are then heated in miniature ovens. Once gaseous, the samples are fed into a sophisticated chemical analysis system and from here into an ion trap mass spectrometer. The gas is ionised by an electron-source and then a controlling high-voltage field is used to selectively eject ions of differing mass into a counter, enabling isotope ratios to be measured to very high precision.

Rosetta at Comet
(Credit: ESA)

The challenges for the project were the miniaturisation of the mass spectrometer with its high-voltage control electronics, the many gas valves and high temperature reactors of the complex chemical analysis system, and the supply of ultra-high purity helium to flush the evolved gases through the instrument.

The instrument control and data processing electronics required the design of several customised circuits. Overall, the severe constrains on the size, mass and power available for Ptolemy required the miniaturisation and space-qualification of every component – either with significant evolution and modifications of existing components or the development of completely new technologies.

Professor Holdaway said, “We took a chemistry set the size of an average kitchen and shrank it down to fit into a shoebox. It had to be robust enough to survive the rigors of the launch and 10 years in space – and now, when it begins to take the measurements of the comet material, it’s going to do that in incredible detail.”

More than a year will pass before the mission draws to a close in December 2015, by which time the spacecraft and the comet will have circled the Sun and be on their way out of the inner Solar System.

In the 10 years that Rosetta has been orbiting the solar system, the cutting-edge space technology developed specifically for its mission has evolved and is now directly benefiting people here on Earth. It has been developed by several small UK start-up companies for healthcare and medical applications.

Oxford Micro Medical Ltd is applying some of the methodology used by Ptolemy on the Rosetta mission to develop a breath test to detect the bacteria which causes stomach ulcers and potentially cancer.

Insect Research Systems Limited is developing technology for detecting and monitoring bed bugs in hotel rooms. The company is not using technology directly applied to Rosetta but they are using many of the same philosophies and lessons learnt, such as the same requirements for portability, ruggedness, low power and limited user interaction.

Chilton Technology is developing micro-needles for use in vaccinations, so that a significantly smaller volume of liquid will be needed.

Notes for editors: 

  1. Ptolemy was designed and developed by teams at STFC RAL Space (link opens in a new window) and the Open University (link opens in a new window), led by Professor Ian Wright, Professor of Planetary Sciences at the Open University.

  2. The Philae lander is provided by a European consortium headed by the German Aerospace Research Institute (DLR). Other members of the consortium are ESA, CNES and institutes from Austria, Finland, France, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, and the United Kingdom.

  3. The Rosetta mission (link opens in a new window) will achieve many historic firsts:

    • Rosetta will be the first spacecraft to orbit a comet’s nucleus.

    • It will be the first spacecraft to fly alongside a comet as it heads towards the inner Solar System.

    • Rosetta will be the first spacecraft to examine from close proximity how a frozen comet is transformed by the warmth of the Sun.

    • On its way to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, Rosetta will have passed through the main asteroid belt, with the option to be the first European close encounter with one or more of these primitive objects.

    • Shortly after its arrival at Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the Rosetta orbiter will dispatch a robotic lander for the first controlled touchdown on a comet nucleus.

    • The Rosetta lander’s instruments will obtain the first images from a comet’s surface and make the first in situ analysis to find out what it is made of.

    • Rosetta will be the first spacecraft ever to fly close to Jupiter’s orbit using solar cells as its main power source.

  4. Back on Earth, Rosetta technology is being developed further:

    The following companies are based at the ESA Business Incubation Centre Harwell (Oxfordshire), which is managed by STFC, who are involved with the Ptolemy instrument and are utilising other Rosetta technology in their products.

    • Insect Research Systems Ltd – Dr Taff Morgan, Chief Technical Officer, is a member of the Ptolemy Team at The Open University and was one of the designers of the inlet system that will contribute significantly to the delivery of the scientific objectives of the mission. He is still partly funded by the UK Space Agency to interpret the data they hope to receive from the comet in November. According to Taff, “the last couple of weeks have been very busy as Ptolemy has finally switched on and we have been working through the post hibernation commissioning testing in preparation for cometary rendezvous”.

      Jason Littler is CEO of Insect Research Systems Ltd. The company does not use any technology directly applied in Ptolemy, however they share many of the philosophies utilised in Ptolemy and the lessons learnt, such as the same requirements for portability, ruggedness, low power and limited user interaction as Ptolemy.

    • Oxford Micro Medical Ltd – Dr Taff Morgan is also director at Oxford Micro Medical (OMM). OMM are utilising the application of stable isotope methodology used in Rosetta to determine the physical and chemical history of a target species. They are using the diagnostic shift in the stable isotopic composition of carbon dioxide present in breath samples of patients with Helicobacter pylori, a stomach infection that links to cancer, to develop a novel mass spectrometer for healthcare applications.

      The STFC patented mass discriminator card, which forms the heart of the OMM system, was originally developed as a low power, lower resource alternative to the Ptolemy ion trap mass spectrometer for future planetary missions. Professor Ejaz Huq, Chief Scientist at Oxford Micro Medical, provided nanotips for the ionisation source of the Ptolemy mass spectrometer. These low power tips are not used in the OMM system but have worked well during their recent commissioning activities

    • Chilton Tech Ltd – Chilton Tech Ltd (CTL), founded by Derek Jenkins, is adapting etching methods developed for the manufacture of Ptolemy ionisation source. Silicon Deep Reactive Etching techniques have been used to form nano-sharp micro-projection of high aspect ratio and density. Chilton Tech Ltd has recently developed a high throughput polymer route to manufacture, which should overcome the challenges of scaling and costs associated with the commercialisation of the microneedle delivery systems. The nano-sharp projection approach, use by CTL, consists of an array of thousands of vaccine coated microneedles that perforate into the outer layers of the skin. The tips of Microneedles are coated with a vaccine material and release this material directly to the large numbers of key immune cells immediately below the skin surface.

For more information please contact: RAL Space Enquiries