Philae Lander Sees Comet through Swiss Eye

Neuchatel, 12 November 2014 – Press Release by CSEM

First-ever High-definition Miniaturized Cameras Were Developed in Neuchâtel for Instrument CIVA of Philae Comet Lander to take First Panoramic and 3D Shots of Comet Landscape.

csemAs the Rosetta spacecraft’s Philae lander touches down today on its target, it will send the first ever im-ages of a comet’s nuclei from ground level. Conceived to function under extreme conditions, seven cam-eras will together take 360° panoramic pictures of the comet’s surface that scientists, astrophysics en-thusiasts, science lovers, and the world media will pour over in the coming days. Developed between 1998 et 2001, based on a prototype developed between 1992 and 1997 for ESA Technology Research Programme, these high-definition cameras are not only miniature, they are robust enough to resist the violent vibrations of take-off and the extremely low temperatures encountered during the travel to and to follow a comet hurdling through space towards the sun.

The cameras compose part of CIVA (Comet nucleus Infrared and Visible Analyzer), one of ten on-board instruments for the Philae’s in situ analysis of the comet. At that time—well before the omnipresence of small digital cameras on each phone—space-quality cameras were almost the size of the lander itself. “It was a gargantuan feat to build something so small, and many thought it was impossible. Luckily the watchmaking and microtechnical expertise found in Switzerland was up to the challenge,” explains CSEM researcher Ivar Kjelberg.
Weighing 100 grams each, able to take high-definition black and white images, use very little energy, and resist incredibly low temperatures of -150° C, these miniature cameras are able to fit in the palm of one’s hand—a world first for space travel that could be seen as an inspiration for the generation of earth cameras we all have in our pockets today. There are seven identical visible spectrum cameras on the lander: five to take single images and one pair for a stereoscopic, or 3D, view of the comet’s landscape. And each camera is a jewel of engineering prowess: a complex system comprising highly miniaturized electronics, state of the art miniature optics, signal conditioning and processing as well as data commu-nication interface and a customized mechanical interface.

The French-made three-dimensional stackable electronics allowed for considerable size reduction, while the optics, the mechanics, software and communication module are Swiss, customized to bear the pun-ishing conditions of space travel. CSEM was prime contractor and among many other innovations for the project, CSEM has notably developed the flexure-based assembly, a single piece of titanium with an internal spring that is machined into the structure, in a process known as Flextec, to assemble precisely the optics and the electronics and to allow for retraction and expansion during extreme heat fluctuations. Former project manager at CSEM of the ESA prototype camera and of the CIVA cameras, Jean-Luc Josset, now director at the Space Exploration Institute (SPACE-X), explains “the development of this type of technology opens the doors for new, highly-demanding missions and is an exemplary of skills CSEM is able to offer.”


Background on the project
Rosetta is a European Space Agency (ESA) mission whose adventure began in March 2004 with the launch of the Rosetta comet chaser; ten years and more than six billion of kilometers later, touch down is imminent. The CIVA instrument on the Philae lander is an Institut d’Astrophysique Spatiale (IAS) led project with development funding from the Centre national d’études spatiales (CNES). The testing and qualifications of the CIVA cameras were funded by ESA. CSEM would like to thank all of its international and regional partners in helping to make it possible to take the first ever close-ups of a comet and land-scape from its surface.


Additional information
Dr. Ivar Kjelberg
Precision Mechanisms, Systems Division
Tel. +41 32 720 56 11
M +41 79 356 73 43