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Small WA town of New Norcia plays big role in space mission

Date

Aleisha Orr

Rosetta's camera snaps Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

Rosetta's camera snaps Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Photo: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team

The idea of ground-breaking space travel may sound exciting but for the workers at a West Australian ground station critical in the Rosetta spacecraft mission, it’s just about keeping things running smoothly.

After more than 10 years travelling 6.4-billion kilometres on a road trip around the solar system, the spacecraft Rosetta "arrived" at its destination, a distant comet named 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, on Wednesday night.

An artist's impression of the Rosetta spacecraft (right) and the comet.

An artist's impression of the Rosetta spacecraft (right) and the comet. Photo: AFP/ESA

The European Space Agency's comet chaser came within 100 kilometres of the surface of Comet 67-P, which is hurtling around the Sun at up to 135,000km/h.

Rosetta is the first space probe to rendezvous with a comet - some of the oldest material in the universe - and the Deep Space Ground Station in the small town of New Norcia, 150 kilometres north of Perth is the spacecraft’s primary contact point.

Station manager Ron Vogels is one of a team of 11 who work at the station, where the primary role is maintenance.

"We make sure it [the spacecraft] keeps going, the rest of the work is done by remote operation from Darmstadt in Germany,” he said.

“So there’s not much here that you see.”

Even so, Mr Vogels said it was “exciting to be part of something so big”.

He said wind and other weather were the main challenges to the satellite’s operation.

“We’re the cogs behind the scenes,” he said.

Mr Vogels said he’d been checking the news in recent days as he knew the spacecraft was getting close to its destination.

He said although  the staff in New Norcia - most of whom had worked there since before Rosetta first went into space -  had not done anything to mark the momentous occasion on Wednesday night, they would probably “open some champagne in November when the comet landing takes place”.

For the next two months the satellite will fly in a series of triangle-shaped orbits to map the surface of the icy body, moving closer on each leg. 

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