On Wednesday, astronomers with the European Space Agency will attempt a maneuver that has never been tried before. A probe from the spacecraft Rosetta is to land on a comet some 500 million kilometers away. The mission could teach us about life on Earth.
Achim Zschaege’s hands are calm as he steers the spaceship through the vast expanse that no human has ever seen before. “We are currently somewhere between Mars and Jupiter,” he says.
A physical engineer by training, Zschaege isn’t, of course, sitting on board the spacecraft himself. His work station is in an open-plan office not far from the central train station in Darmstadt. It is from this sparsely decorated space that he controls the unmanned space probe Rosetta.
On this night, Zschaege is the “Spacecraft Controller” (Spacon) on duty at the European Space Operations Center. Dressed casually in jeans and a sweater, his eight-hour shift has just gotten underway. He regularly checks the columns of numbers streaming across his computer screen, helping ensure that the probe stays on course.