Rosetta will land on a comet tomorrow.
  • YouTube
  • Rosetta will land on a comet tomorrow.

Tomorrow, the European Space Agency will attempt to land on a comet with the hopes of getting insight into the evolution of the solar system. One of the scientists behind the operation is the University of Chicago’s Thanasis “Tom” Economou. A native of Greece, 77-year-old Economou has called U. of C. home since he took a job there at age 27 to work on sensors for lunar landers in the 1960s. The Fermi Institute senior scientist is currently involved with three robotics endeavors: tomorrow’s Rosetta trip, the Cassini mission to Saturn, and the Mars Exploration Rovers.

The Rosetta spacecraft is headed to Comet 67P, a clump of snow and dark dust known as the “singing comet” that orbits up to 116 million miles from the sun. Scientists are hoping the outing will be able to tell them if comets formed our oceans and brought about chemical precursors to life on Earth. On board Philae, the robotic lander attached to the Rosetta ship, is Economou’s alpha particle X-ray spectrometer, which will be used to look at the elements that make up the comet.

The landing will be tricky, Economou says, but he’s familiar with the ups and downs of space exploration. Back in 1999, when two failed missions had NASA worried, Economou was left uncertain his work would make it out of the atmosphere. His previous work in 1997 on the Pathfinder trip to Mars had been a success, though. His spectrometer sent back data on Martian soil, which led to the discovery that the soil on the red planet was full of silicon, meaning it probably formed somewhat like Earth did.

In the downtime afforded a scientists awaiting robotics to return from space, Economou is spearheading a project close to home. In Greece, Economou is creating a massive observatory, a 2.5 million euro undertaking called the Astronomy Observatory of Orliakas. That endeavor’s goal is a little less technical than the others he’s got his hands in: bringing the science of space to young students.

“They say if you have one successful mission in your career, you’re lucky,” Economou told the Chicago Tribune in 1999. Here’s to hoping he has another tomorrow.

You can catch live coverage of the Rosetta mission and the sendoff of Economou’s spectrometer from NASA tomorrow between 8 and 9 AM.