Barely 26 now, Dr Chaitanya Giri was not even born when the European Space Agency (ESA) conceptualised its Rosetta mission. He is the sole Indian scientist on the crew in charge of the Rosetta mission that achieved the feat on November 12 — landing robotic spacecraft Philae lander on a comet.
After finishing his BSc (Honours) in Chemistry and MSc in Biophysics from Mumbai, where he grew up, Giri did his PhD in chemistry from France and worked at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) in Göttingen, Germany.
“I am a third generation scientist working on the mission and the most fascinating fact is that Rosetta was conceptualised when I was not even born. The success of the mission is entirely credited to the million man-hours invested by close to a thousand scientists and engineers across three generations. All I can say is I have stood on the shoulders of giants,” Giri said in an email to The Indian Express.
Philae lander is the first ever spacecraft to land safely on a comet.
“Landing on a comet might clear some of the immense ambiguities in our understanding of the existence of life. Also comet material has never been explored at such close distances and the exotic material that it potentially possesses might have tremendous applications in a wide gamut of industry,” he said.
“I have been working towards the hardware optimisation of an instrument called COSAC and analyses of the data that it generates. COSAC was designed and built at the MPS. I have been working with the team led by COSAC’s principal investigator Dr Fred Goesmann since 2011,” Giri said.
Speaking about the Cometary Sampling and Composition Experiment (COSAC), a chemical analytical instrument on the lander, he said it was designed to identify the organic composition of the comet surface, and specifically to identify molecules that believed to be responsible for the origin of life on Earth.
“We are still anxious, resilient and inquisitive. Our central task begins now — crunching the data into meaningful science. The mission design involves numerous experiments that are scheduled to take place in the next few weeks. The environment where the lander is standing is violent and nothing like that experienced by the landers on the Moon and on Mars. There might be comet quakes (like earthquakes) or ultra-cold volcanoes beneath the lander! Our ultimate wish is to see the lander survive and be functional throughout all the scheduled experiments,” said Giri, who spent the entire night celebrating with the crew after some tense moments.
ESA has been a leader of comet exploration for more than 30 years and it had conceptualised the Rosetta mission in the late 1980s. “That was when ESA already had met success with its Giotto mission to Halley’s comet. Giotto was the first ever mission to closely study any comet. By the late 1990s, most of the Rosetta instruments were in the advanced stages of development,” said Giri.
Rosetta was earlier targeted to visit another comet by the name of 46P/Wirtanen. But a rocket launch failure made it impossible for Rosetta to reach it and the entire mission was rescheduled with comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko as the new target. “Rosetta was launched in March 2004 and after close to 11 years of journey in deep space, we now have reached the surface of 67P,” he said.
The MPS has been involved with Rosetta right since the mission was conceptualised. Of the total 21 scientific instruments on board Rosetta and the Philae lander, MPS today leads the team of three instruments and is a collaborator on as many as six.
“Apart from the development and optimisation of COSAC hardware, the co-investigating team led by Prof Meierhenrich has been involved in numerous state-of-the-art experiments, where we recreated interstellar environments on Earth. We have found that such environments are conducive to form left-handed amino acids. Life on Earth exclusively utilises left-handed amino acids and shuns the right-handed counterparts. If the mission proceeds well, we might get a chance to explore amino acids on the comet surface and identify their handedness,” he said.
Scientists in India are thrilled at this historic development. Talking to The Indian Express, Arvind Paranjpye, Director, Nehru Planetarium, Nehru Centre, Mumbai, said how and why life on “the third rock” from the sun came into existence and evolved there was a big mystery. “Scientific studies suggest that the solar system was formed about 4.5 billion years ago that included the sun and other planets. But humans have existed for only a few million years or so. The success of the mission will take us one step closer to understanding the mystery,” he said.