Rosetta: A novel by Dominic Streames       

In the ancient world, people thought that comets were bad omens, signs of terrible events to come; in ROSETTA, a comet leads to a revelation that changes the lives of everyone on the planet. William is head of the Rosetta space programme, facing cuts in funding and opposition to his work. When the Rosetta probe starts to send back strange pictures and messages from a comet it has attached itself to, he sees his chance to convince the world that his work is of crucial importance for humanity.

But William and his team get more than they bargained for, as they start to find clues to a puzzle that goes back thousands of years, and that will take them to Japan, France and Spain on the trail of Isaac Newton and a mysterious French explorer. And the longer they delay in figuring it out, the greater the misunderstandings between the US, the EU and Russia over what has been discovered become, and the greater the risk of war.

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Chapter 1   

Date: January 20th 2014

Time: 9.59 a.m. Central European time

Place:  Deep space


A small spacecraft floats by, the black body and blue 14 metre wings barely discernable from the faint glints of light coming from a faraway sun.

10:00 a.m.

An internal alarm clock activates. The craft slowly wakes up from a deep-space hibernation of 31 months. Its paper-thin blue 14-metre solar panels now able to capture enough energy from a sun 673 million km away to warm up its navigation instruments.


The craft begins an orbit correction manoeuvre – or thruster burn. The 3000 kg ship begins almost imperceptibly to spin.


The craft slowly comes out of a stabilizing spin and aims its main radio antenna at a small planet orbiting the distant sun. It sends a message.

Date: May 21st 2014

Time:  17:23 Central European Time

Place:  500 million km from Earth

The darkness is suddenly illuminated as the craft’s thrusters burst into life. The probe begins to slow down.

Over the next seven hours the thrusters slowly perform an orbit correction manoeuvre, delicately lining up the probe with its rendezvous, a barely visible pinprick of light, 1 million km away.

Chapter 2     

Rosetta Mission Operations Centre, European Space Agency

Darmstadt, Germany

May 24th 2014

Time:  16:15 p.m. local time


William Macey sat at the curved instrument panel of the control room and carefully turned the large black dial anti-clockwise. His brown hair, speckled with grey, was swept back from a deeply tanned face, taut with concentration. Thirteen thousand kilometres away, on the other side of the world, a 580 tonne 35-metre deep-space antenna began to turn at a gentle 0.4 degrees per second.

“Boys and girls, that is how it’s done.”

The eight year olds of the Frankfurt International School stared in silence, utterly captivated by the fifty-year-old Flight Operations Manager. The crisp white shirt and red paisley tie he wore made a sharp contrast with the jeans and T-shirts sported by the rest of the room occupants. 
A small ginger-haired girl at the front lifted her hand.

“Does that really make that big space dish move?” she asked, pointing to a picture of a large dish-shaped antenna, which William had propped up on the desk.

“Yep,” replied William. “Would you like to try?”

Cries of “Wow.” “No way.” filled the control room.

“Quieten down boys and girls,” a gentle but firm voice from a young woman with long auburn sitting behind the children.

William beckoned a little girl over. “What’s your name?


“Well, Sally, put you hand here, on the dial. Nice and gently. Excellent, now turn it ever so gently. Yep, that’s it. Gently does it, a little more. Super. Now can you see this dial, you see the numbers?”

Sally nodded very seriously.

“That tells us how much the big space antenna is turning. You see the first number, where it says 16. I want you to turn the dial until it says 18, OK?”

Sally Emma Brown turned the black dial, bigger than her hand, with more concentration than she had ever mustered in her whole life. When the reading reached 18, William gave a big smile and her classmates broke out in spontaneous applause.

“Excellent. Thank you Sally, you have just aligned our Deep Space Antenna to receive a signal from a spacecraft five hundred million miles away in space.”

A hushed “Whoa!” filled the room.

“Thank you so much, Mr Macey,” said their teacher, Miss Watkins.

“Call me William.”

“Thank you ...William. Could you tell us a little about what you do here?”

A skinny girl next to Sally raised a skeletal arm. “Do you fly the spaceship from here?”

“Well, children, it’s really top top secret, but…” William lowered his voice conspiratorially “can you keep a secret?”

The children almost exploded in excitement. “Yes, yes!”

“Yes, we do,” continued the Flight Operations Manager, looking furtively around the room “This is what we call a mission control centre. In this control room, we can control the spaceship through our Deep Space Antenna on the other side of the world.”

The information was greeted with yet more “Wows!”

“Our tracking station is in New Norcia, Australia.  It’s very cool, boys and girls. It’s equipped with Delta Differential One-Way Ranging …… well, anyway, that is a new technology which lets us locate and track… that is, find and follow, spacecraft that are a long long way away. Up to 900 million miles away in space.”

William left a dramatic pause to let that figure sink in. 900 million miles! He knew that even for eight year olds, that just sounded likesuch a big number.

“At the moment,” he continued, “we are waiting for a signal from a spacecraft called Rosetta. It’s actually what we call a space probe, and at the moment it’s about 300 million miles from earth. To receive the signal we have to point the big space antenna in exactly the right direction. That’s what Controller Sally there did.” The children giggled and Sally reddened ever so slightly.

A little olive skinned boy at the back raised his hand. “Are there people on the spaceship?”

“That’s an excellent question. No, there aren’t any people on it. It’s been out in space a long time. It was launched in 2004, which was before you were even born.”

More “Wows.”

“Yep, it’s been flying through space for ten years. I’m not sure any astronaut would want to be away from home that long.”

“Where is it going?” asked a taller boy on the left.

“Now that is another excellent question! Miss Watkins, you have some real young scientists here. Of course, we don’t just send spacecraft into space for no reason. No, whenever we send a spacecraft into space, it has a mission. Do you know what a mission is?”

The children looked at each other. Suddenly a small chubby girl in a red gingham dress spoke up. “Mission impossible!”

“Yep, that’s right. Tom Cruise goes on missions, doesn’t he? A mission is when you have to do something and it’s usually something that is a little tricky. For example, going to the supermarket to buy a packet of crisps is not a mission.”

The children and Miss Watkins laughed.

“Now if the supermarket was guarded by ten foot alien robots….that would be a mission!”

Some of the children started acting out being robots.

“OK, Class 3A, calm down,” said Miss Watkins kindly.

“Well, our little Rosetta spacecraft is on a mission. Not an impossible mission, but a pretty difficult one.”

Leaning closer to the children, William again lowered his voice. “The Rosetta spacecraft is going to land ….on a comet!”

“Whoa!” came the reaction.

“Now, what do you think we might find on a comet? What do you think a comet is made of?”

Three or four hands went up.

The blond Miss Watkins interrupted. “OK boys and girls, I want you to tell your partner what you think a comet might be made of. Ok, tell your partner.” The children all started whispering excitedly.


Miss Watkins leaned closer to William, “A good trick to use,” she explained. “If you ask for an answer the less confident children keep quiet. This way, everyone gets the chance to say what they think. Most children have an opinion, it’s just they don’t have the confidence to say it out loud immediately. I call it using their talking partner.”

After half a minute William repeated the question. This time almost everyone put their hand up.

He chose a short plump boy on the right, with short black cropped hair, who was practically bouncing up and down with excitement.

“Is it made of rock?”

“Excellent guess. Well done. There are rocks out in space. We call them meteors. But comets are different. They’re not made of rock.”

“I know, I know!” squeaked a taller boy.

 Miss Watkins intervened. “Ok Martin, what do you think?”

“Is it made of ice?”

“Well done, exactly. Comets are in fact made of ice. You are a very clever boy.”

“My dad is a scientist,” beamed the boy proudly.

“A scientist! Wow, what does he do?”

“He’s a ….farmer.”

William was saved from the ensuing awkward silence by the teacher.

“I think you mean pharmacist, Martin.”

“Oh I see. Excellent,” William gave the boy a reassuring smile. “Anyway, our space probe is going to find out exactly what the comet is made of. What else do you think we might find?”

“God?” ventured Sally.

William opened his mouth but nothing came out.

Miss Watkins came to the rescue. “Well, God lives up in the heavens, doesn’t he, so, who knows? That’s an interesting thought, Sally.”

“Is it gonna land today?” another girl asked.

“No, at the moment Rosetta is about 260 thousand miles from the comet. Today the space probe is firing its rockets or thrusters as we call them, in order to slow down. It’s been travelling very fast to get there but we now we have to slow it down so when it finally reaches the comet, they are travelling at the same speed.”

The Flight Operations Manager demonstrated using a rock as the comet and pen drive as the Rosetta probe coming along side.

“You see, the Rosetta probe has to come along side the comet like this. This’ll happen in September. And then, the probe will launch a smaller spacecraft called Philae, which will use two harpoons to attach itself to the comet. Well, that’s the plan, anyway. So today´s signal is just to let us know the thruster burn went OK, and that Darth Vader is not anywhere near. You know what he’s like!”

The children erupted into laughter, which was a moment later interrupted by a loud beeping noise. William immediately spun around on his swivel chair. A woman with long black curly hair who had been busying herself in the background walked over and leaned over his shoulder. A chewed up pen stuck out of her mouth.

William gave her a nod. “Ok Darya, we’re gonna get ready for that signal. I’m setting the downlink frequency.”

“Got that,” the woman said, taking the pen out of her mouth as she spoke. “Are you able to confirm the Spacecraft Trajectory Data Message?” The woman's pronunciation of “th” as “z” gave an audible hint of a Russian nationality.

A tall slim man dressed in jeans and a Power Rangers T-shirt responded.

“I can confirm Data Message.”

“Thanks Philip,” Darya said, pressing various brightly coloured buttons. “Ok, I’m calibrating the ranging signal.”

After a moment’s tense silence William walked over to a microphone next to Darya and flipped a switch.

“New Norcia, this is Rosetta Mission Operations Centre, come in.”

“This is Systems Engineer Oz Osment, here, good to hear from you Will,” came a crackling voice over the speaker.

“New Norcia, we are ready to track.” With that Darya joined William. “Ok Oz, what have we got?”

“Ok, erm…, sorry, hang on.” There was a brief pause before the voice continued.  “Power ok, thermal systems ok, attitude and orbit control, all operating as expected.”

Suddenly another beep, deeper and faster came over the speaker.

“Is there a problem, Oz?” William asked, for the first time a hint of tension appearing in his voice.

 “Erm,  I…., just a minute. Sorry,” came the reply. Oz hated the way he became tongue-tied when nervous.

“If there’s a problem Mr Macey, we could go,” the teacher said.

Looking around the room he saw Max, a young post-grad student working away at a desk at the back.

“Max, sorry, erm…could you give these boys and girls a tour of our Antenna array outside.”

Miss Watkins clapped her hands twice. “Ok, boys and girls, we’re going to go outside to see some of the antennas that receive these messages!”

William turned back to the monitor.

“Ok, Oz, watcha got?”

A crackle from the loud speaker. “Speed with respect to comet 925 m/s.”

William frowned. “This is Rosetta Mission Operations Centre, did we just hear you right, please confirm speed.”

“Yes, speed with respect to comet 925 m/s.”

“Speed should be 463 m/s. Are you sure?” William added, making a quick calculation on a piece of paper in front him.

“Er, yes, that’s an affirmative. I can confirm speed at 925 m/s.”

“Can you confirm the thruster burn?” Darya added.

“Hang on…. I…. I can confirm that the thruster burn has failed. I repeat. Big Burn 3 has failed.”

Miss Watkins, who was shepherding the last children through the door, caught the Russian’s eye.

“Is that a problem?”

“The space probe is travelling too fast. It should have just undergone a thruster burn to slow it down to 463 m/s.”

“I see. And er…. what happens if it doesn’t slow down. Can it still rendezvous with the comet? Will it be on the wrong trajectory?”

“Oh no, it’s on the right trajectory,” Darya explained. “That’s the problem. It’s on a collision course for the comet. If it doesn’t slow down…” Darya slammed one fist into the other. “Boom! Well, actually sound doesn’t travel in a vacuum so it wouldn’t actually go “boom” but, you get the point.”

Chapter 3

The Rosetta Mission Operations Centre

Darmstadt, Germany

May 24th 2014

Time: 17:05 Central European Time


The atmosphere in the flight control room was tense. Thirty people sat at three rows of computers and instrument panels, concentrating on the monitors, dials, and blinking lights. The front wall was a mosaic of screens of various sizes to the right and left, framing a large central panel. The main screen showed a grainy black and white image of the rear of the Rosetta space probe taken from a camera mounted half way along the main body of the craft. The top of the picture was obscured by the edge of one of the fourteen-metre solar panels. Below, most of the picture was taken up by the large square silver body of the probe. The screen showed two sides of the square body, forming a triangle at the corner near the centre of the screen. Just visible, protruding from the behind the body of the spacecraft was the part everyone was focused on - the round end of one the main thrusters.


William Macey had been Spacecraft Operations Manager at the European Space Agency's Control Centre for just over ten months, ever since a suspected heart attack had forced the previous incumbent to step down. His predecessor, Dave Tanner, was a legend in the admittedly small circles in which he moved, but a legend nevertheless. And a natural leader. Fair yet firm. He always seemed to know exactly what needed to be done and managed to somehow steer everyone in the right direction with the minimum of fuss and antipathy. William had long appreciated that even in the geek world of space flight control, getting everyone on board and in-step was vital for the effective running of any mission. William knew he was not unpopular. He had a good sense of humor, and the social skills to know when, and when not, to use it. He particularly enjoyed showing visiting school children around. Officially there were other people to do that but William found he had a good rapport with children. But more than that he enjoyed trying to explain the science. Back in his youth as an engineering undergraduate, he had vaguely toyed with the idea of going into teaching. Being a manager was certainly something he had never envisaged. In his previous job before joining the European Space Agency, William had designed and built drills and other probes for deep-sea mining operations. He had always been comfortable with taking the responsibility for his actions back then. But back then he was almost a one-man team. If the project went pear shaped, it fell on him and him alone. Not anymore.


William had been working as a flight engineer for six years, a lot less time than some of his colleagues, which had caused a modicum of resentment when Dave personally nominated William to succeed him. Officially, of course, there was a nominating committee tasked with the job of selecting a replacement but in reality there would have to have been very strong obviating circumstances to go against the Chief of Flight operations’ personal choice. "You are the right man for the job, Will. You have an excellent all round awareness of Flight operations, and you're not a computer geek." He remembered Dave's words, spoken in an unusually quiet voice. He had only just been released from hospital and he was looking very tired. William had wondered if not being a computer geek was really a positive point in this environment.


“Will, I chose you because of your engineering background. Heck, you practically built Rosetta. And the Pathfinder Mission to Saturn. That was your probe design. Listen, if the shit ever hits the fan, we need a chief of ops who knows how the craft works. If you don’t know how they’re built, you can’t jerry rig’ em.”


William had hoped he would be able to complete the Rosetta mission without doing any jerry rigging, but the sudden thruster news from New Norcia had put paid to that hope. Just be calm, he thought. Stay calm. The technical problems he felt he could handle. It was the room full of people all looking at him for decisions that scared the hell out of him. This was the first “crisis”, if crisis was the right word, of his tenure as Spacecraft Operations Manager. William stood up and walked over to the middle row of control panels. "How is the data signal? Are we getting any interference?”

“Signal clear,” replied a monotone voice from the back. Philip Evans, a flight control engineer, had been a good friend of William from his engineering days. What he lacked in social skills he made up for in clarity of thought and no nonsense directness. William had often wondered if Philip was on the spectrum of people suffering from Asperger’s syndrome. Maybe we all are, he thought.

“And the Deep Space Antenna, has anyone checked if they’ve run diagnostics?”

“I think we should check the relays here first,” a voice called out from the back of the room.

“But we have a clear signal,” a female voice cut in “If it was a relay problem, we’d be detecting backwash interference.”

“But we’re surely talking about a software issue, right?” another voice chipped in. “I think we need to run on-board diagnostics first.”

The room erupted into a cacophony of suggestions. William closed his eyes, rubbing the back of his neck while the arguing voices bounced back and forth in his head.

 “William…?” came a hesitant voice from his left. A woman with thick-rimmed glasses looked expectantly up at him, her thick chestnut coloured hair tied back in a plait.

William looked back at her, and then around the room. He took a deep breath. “Ok, everyone, first, contact the Deep Space Antenna to see if they’ve run diagnostics.”

“I’m on to it," replied a young woman with long black curly hair. "Hello, New Norcia, this is Mission Control, have you run diagnostics on signal emission?”. A moment later the reply came crackling over the speakers.

“This is New Norcia, Oz speaking, diagnostics show our Antenna is sending signals with no interference from here.”

“Thank you, Oz,” responded William. “Ok everyone, so we know we are not having any problems sending or receiving signals. So the problem is most likely a subroutine failure in the software of the on-board computer. The rest of the probe’s systems are functioning fine so we know the on-board computer itself is working fine. So we need to ….” William hesitated. He wasn’t sure if the room had fallen silent or if his mind was somehow blocking out the noise.

A voice broke his silence. “Shall we isolate the subroutine for thruster burn and resend the signal?”  William looked down at a flight engineer.

“Yes,” he responded slowly. “Yeah, let’s do that. Isolate the subroutine for thruster burn and resend the signal.”

“I can do that,” Philip replied.

William strode purposefully to the front of the room, trying to muster as much calm poise as he could as he looked up at the grainy picture of the thrusters. “I have a good team,” he told himself, “stay calm.” Turning around, he spotted the figure of Irene Basterrika enter the room. A short slim woman in her late forties, with short black hair with a ruler straight fringe, something which he was told was the Basque fashion. As the European Space Agencies Projects Manager, she was his line manager, and also responsible for presenting the work of the agency to the public and the politicians. This was not going to be a social call.

“Hello William,” She approached him and gave her customary kiss on both cheeks. “I heard there is a problem.”

“A small technical glitch, Irene.” He pronounced the Spanish name eereney.

“Do we know why the thrusters failed to burn?”

“We take it step by step, Irene. Isolate a possible cause, act on it and see what happens. The orbiter’s thrusters are already performing at lower pressure than planned because of the Reaction Control System leak that occurred way back in September 2006. So we’ve been preparing for eventualities. You know the routine.”

William resented this type of conversation, for he knew full well that she was aware of this already.

Irene steered him by the arm to a quiet corner of the room. The way she stood, back straight, arms crossed, reminded William of a school headmistress. 
“Ok, but I am under a lot of political pressure.” Her Spanish accent became noticeably monotone when she was stressed. “These people can do science and forget the world of politics but I am having to go to these budget meetings. I just want to say, William, we could do without problems.”

“Seriously? And you don’t think I have a problem with my probe slamming into the comet at 900 metres a second?” He paused, looking for a facial clue to her reaction.  The pencil thin eyebrows were pulled down together. Her crimson lips tightly closed.

“Irene, we’re onto it, ok?”

“Don´t be shooting the messenger William. You are Spacecraft Operations Manager now. You´re management and part of our job…” Irene emphasised the “our” with her characteristic dramatic flair, “is to present our work to the public, and in turn to their elected representatives. At the end of the day, it´s the public who is paying for this.”

“Irene, if I thought this mission was a waste of time and money, I would not have spent years of my life designing the Rosetta probe, let alone overseeing its launch.”

“Ok William. You know where my loyalties lie, but please sort this out.”

“Leave it in my, in our capable hands.” At that William took his leave and joined a small group of people crowded round a console at the back.


He could feel the frustration bubbling up from the inside. Everyone hailed the moon landing as a great triumph, but no one seemed to remember the huge amounts of money spent on the disastrous forerunners to the Saturn V rockets. That wonderful scene from the film “The Right Stuff” suddenly came to his mind, with the various earlier designs of rockets exploding left, right and centre. Shit happens, thought William, some of it expensive.


“Ok, I’ve isolated the routine, and I think I’ve found our problem.” William tried to put these brooding thoughts out of his mind as he looked over to locate the source of the voice. He immediately saw Ginny, the attractive chestnut haired flight engineer, looking at him with her hand in the air. William loved the way she always did that, put her hand up when she wanted to say something, like she was in school. William wandered over to where she was sitting, next to Philip. Ginny was one of the newest members of the team, being responsible for, unusually for one person, both Flight Dynamics and Software Support.

“Ok, watcha got?” William asked.

“It looks like the computer suffered a processor overload,” Ginny explained. “It was compressing the data on the comets telemetry and writing it to its memory. At the same time the instrument command sequence for the thruster burn was being uploaded. The combined workload exceeded the processor's capabilities, and triggered a feature designed to prevent the spacecraft's software from crashing. It switched the main computer system over to the backup computer, and put the main system into sleep mode as a safety measure.”

“I’m sure why it happened is all very interesting,” Darya said, cutting her off “but can you fix it?”

Ginny punched some numbers into the computer, her cheeks visibly reddening. “Ok, um, it’ll take a little time to handle the transition back to the main computer but yes, we can fix it.”

William moved his hand up to give Ginny a gentle slap on the back, but hesitated at the last minute. Being the boss had made him self-conscious about this sort of thing.

“When you have the new command, enter it into the mainframe profile and we´ll send it. Oh, er, nice job Ginny. Right everyone, we’ll need to double check all the sub-routines for the thruster burners.”

“By the way, William, I was meaning to mention something…” Darya’s voice her voice trailed off as Ginny looked up, meeting her eye.

William turned back to her. “What, sorry?”

The Russian gave a dismissive wave of the hand. “No, is nothing. I´ll catch you later.”


William looked at Ginny. She was his age, but looked much younger. She had transferred here from the aerospace research and development unit in Toulouse, France, about a year ago. She had been singularly responsible for updating the in-flight software for the European Weather Satellite programme.  He had always felt that getting her to work here had been a real coup. It was therefore a nice feeling to see her come up with a solution so fast.

Chapter 4

The telephone on the large mahogany desk rang three times before the person sitting behind it picked it up. The thick green curtains were half closed, bathing most of the room in shadow.


“It´s me,” came a nervous voice in reply.

“Do you have any news?”

“The main thrusters failed to burn as expected.”

“I see. How serious is that, on a scale of 1 to 10?”

“If they can´t fix it, that would be a 10. End of mission.”

“Do you think they can fix it?”

“Let´s hope not.”

“I don´t pay you to hope. I pay you to do.”

“Leave it to me.”

“And who else do you think I am going to leave it to?


The woman at the desk glanced at her watch. Sunlight glinted off the emerald green Rolex. “Call me this time tomorrow.”

Chapter 5

The children had just come in from their impromptu tour of the Antenna array behind the main complex. Max handed out plastic cups of water to the hot and sweaty 8 year olds as they sat on the floor in front of William in a small empty space at the side of the room. He knew he could easily send them away but somehow their presence was calming. Their smiling faces forced him to suppress his anxieties. “Well, boys and girls, we think we may know what our little problem with the probe is, and we think we can fix it.”

“Hooray!” cheered the children.

William genuinely smiled.

“We think the problem was we asked the computer to do too many things at once. Nice to know it’s not just us men who have problems with multi-tasking. Anyway, we’re going to send some new instructions to wake it up and tell the main thrusters, those are the rockets, remember, to fire.”

Darya swung round on her swivel chair. “OK William, the new signal has been imputed into the telemetry database. We are ready to send the message.”

William leaned forward and was just about to flick a switch when he hesitated.

“Would anyone here like to send the message?”

A host of hands bobbed up and down. William chose a shy little boy at the back.

“What’s your name?”

“Billy,” the boy whispered.

“OK, Billy, press this button here.” Billy stood on tiptoe and gently pressed the button.

“Well done Billy. Mission accomplished. And if anything goes wrong I can blame him.”

Billy’s eyebrows raised in obvious panic.

“No, no, sorry, only joking Billy,” William backtracked rather desperately. “You did an excellent job.” Billy smiled nervously and sat down again and the teacher gave him a cup of water.

“When will you know if it has worked?”

“That's a good question, Miss Watkins. Because the probe is so far away, it takes 50 minutes for the signal to get there. And if it works and the rockets fire, we have to wait another 50 minutes for the return signal to come back. So if everything goes ok, we should get a signal back in about just over an hour and a half. You guys could have your picnic outside, at the base of the antenna, if you like. Sorry, can you wait that long?”

“Are you joking?” shot back Miss Watkins. “This is so exciting. I'm sorry, I mean, I know it's a problem and all that, but...”

“Please, don’t apologize. It is a problem but you're right. It is….very exciting.”

The Rosetta Mission Operations Centre

Darmstadt, Germany

Time: 18:10


William paced up and down the side aisle between the end rows of control panels. He knew he could easily go and grab himself a coffee. Nothing was going to happen for at least 50 minutes. The signal now sweeping through space, being a form of electromagnetic radiation, was traveling at 670 million miles an hour. William knew the signal could not possibly arrive sooner no matter how hard it tried. Einstein would never allow it. But still, he had this silly feeling that like the captain of a ship, he could not leave the bridge. Face value.


He was therefore relieved when Darya Kazankov came over and handed him her trademark frothy cappuccino. Short, slim, her long jet-black wavy hair tied back in a bunch, the Russian had been a friend and colleague of William for a long time.

“Oh, you are a savior, Darya. Where on earth do you get these?”

 “Secret. I make them myself. I have this little machine for fro…. making the milk. What is the word?”

“Frothing, frothing the milk.”

“Frothing! You English. You have a special word for that, yet your coffee tastes like mud.”

William laughed out loud. “Thank you anyway.”

“Anything to stop you wearing the floor out,” Darya said, walking back to her computer. William sipped the coffee and wandered absentmindedly over to side of the room. Ginny looked up with a start and immediately minimized what was on her computer screen. William stopped by her desk.

“Is everything ok, Ginny?”

The flight engineer looked up, nervously. “What? Oh, yes, fine. Oh, by the way, I forgot to mention it before, sorry. There’s an astro-geologist who’s on sabbatical here. I keep meaning to introduce you.”

“An astro-geologist? What on earth is an astro-geologist?”

“To be honest, I’m not really sure, sorry.” She gave a little nervous laugh. “Don’t worry, I’ll find out.”


The operations manager sauntered over to a printer by the wall and picked up a loose sheet which had fallen on the floor.

“What are you doing?” a voice asked from behind him.

William turned around to see his enigmatic friend, Philip, standing there holding a mug of steaming tea. 
“Waiting,” he replied, putting the sheet of paper back into the printer tray.

“I don´t understand. Everyone is waiting. I just wondered what you were doing? You´ve been walking up and down for the last ten minutes. You don´t seem to be going anywhere.”

Philip, always to the point, reflected the chief.

“I´ll check the flight trajectory and orientation to see if we´ll need to compensate for a late thruster burn.”

“That would be useful,” replied Philip, with, William knew, not a hint of genuine sarcasm. Trust Philip to always bring you down to earth, he thought, smiling as he walked over to a group of flight analysts in the corner.

The Rosetta Mission Operations Centre

Darmstadt, Germany

Time: 19:52


Darya absentmindedly stirred the froth on her cappuccino as she listened to the BBC World Service. A gas refinery explosion in Latvia was being blamed on separatists. Pro and anti-government demonstrations had clashed in the capital Vilnius.  The American Secretary of Defence was again calling for restraint on both sides. He´ll be lucky, she thought. Where was the American’s restraint in Grenada, or Iraq for that matter? And although she had no sympathy for the Russian President, it was only his firm hand that forced American “restraint” in Syria”. It was a topic she had avoided bringing up with her colleagues. So far. She was just about to take a bite of her large fresh cream donut when the red light on the microphone started flashing.

“This is New Norcia Deep Space Antenna 1,” came a voice over the loud speaker. “Our spectrum analyser display has picked up a signal in the Ka-band 32 Giga Hertz frequency range. We have crosschecked telemetry reading and we can confirm that the signal is from Rosetta. We are forwarding the data to you as we speak.”

Darya put down the donut and leaned closer to the microphone. “Thank you, New Norcia. I can confirm receipt of data.” The Russian spun round on her swivel chair.

“We have a confirmed signal from Rosetta. Philip, can you reconfigure the signal and put it up on the big screen for us?”

Philip replied with a flurry of activity at his console as William came to the front of the room. Strings of numbers appeared on the main screen accompanied by what looked like computer code. William held his breath, looking down the lines of information for the tell-tale phrase. He could feel his muscles tense up. And then he saw it, in beautiful capital letters. William read it out loud.

“Thruster Orientation Burn 3. Initiated. Estimated duration: 7hrs:16mins.” William breathed out a sigh of relief.  “Ladies and gentlemen, we are back on course. Thank you, New Norcia!”

A chorus of applause and high-pitched hoorays filled the air.

“Wow! Have you got an audience there, Will?” came the voice of Oz over the speaker.

“Kinda. We have a group of visiting scientists here,” William explained, with a wink at the boys and girls. “They are very happy we are back on course. This is Rosetta, signing off. Thank you New Norcia.”

William felt his tense body relax as the room erupted in applause.

“We have pictures from Rosetta, William,” Ginny called out.

“Put it up on the main screen. Let's have a look."

The numbers and computer code disappeared, replaced by a black photo of stars. And in the centre slightly to the right was a large point of light. A hush went over the room.

“That, ladies and gentlemen, is comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko, our destination. Let’s get to work.”

Chapter 6

Date:  July 10th 2014

Place:  403 million km from Earth in the constellation Sagittarius.


Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko, 4 and a half kilometres in diameter, moved silently though the blackness at a speed of 32,000 kilometres per hour. For the past few weeks as it had approached the sun, its rock-ice nucleus had gently begun to heat up. As it did so, some of the icy nucleus began to turn directly into gas, escaping into space to create its own little atmosphere. The relentless bombardment of the brutal solar wind streaming around the atmosphere, or “coma”, carrying cometary particles with it, had begun to create a long sinewy cometary tail that streaked behind it.


Ten thousand kilometres away the small probe’s thruster’s fire in short calculated bursts, gently realigning the craft. An hour later, with the orbital manoeuvres complete, the Optical, Spectroscopic and Infrared Remote Imaging System (OSIRIS) self activated. Its cameras began sending high-resolution images of the comet’s nucleus to the flight team back on Earth.

The Rosetta Mission Operations Centre

Darmstadt, Germany


“We are getting images from OSIRIS,” came Darya's voice from across the room.

William looked up at the large central screen at the front of the room and was greeted with an image like none he’d seen before.

“What is that? Philip, are you seeing this?”

Philip finished typing something into his computer and turned round. “What have we got…. good grief!”


The latest images from the Rosetta's Osiris Narrow Angle Camera were a surprise, to say the least. Although low definition, because the comet was still thousands of kilometres away from the Rosetta probe, there was no mistaking what they showed. Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko appeared to be not one, but two, objects joined together. 
“What do you make of that, Darya? Are we looking at two comets?” William asked.

Darya drummed her fingers on her desk. A red biro dangling from her lips. “Interesnyy.” She said the Russian word to herself out loud absentmindedly. “Interesting. It could be. Two comets have impacted and somehow stayed together.”

Philip came over and joined them.

“Two comets?” William asked.

Philip peered more closely. “Maybe, but it’s more likely the comet has fractured into two parts somehow. Possibly as it got close to the sun, a less dense area of ice partially melted causing a fracture.”

“Or something impacted with it?” William added, questioningly.

“Yes, it could be. Interesnyy.”

William looked up at the pockmarked surface of comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which filled the huge central screen of the control room.

“There, top left, you see the shadow? Just under it to the right.” Philip pointed with his finger. “Darya, can you zoom in on that section?”

The image on the screen immediately changed, going out of focus momentarily as the camera zoomed in.

“That’s good.”

The image refocused. William took a step forward. It was as if he could reach out and touch it.

“That looks a good possible landing site to me. Input the data.” He walked over to a row of computers at the back stopping next to Ginny. He looked curiously at her computer monitor. “What´s that?”

Ginny jumped in her seat and immediately minimised the screen. “God, you gave me a fright. That? Oh, nothing, just something I´ve been working on.”

“What data have we got from VIRTIS?”

VIRTIS, or Visible and Infrared Thermal Imaging Spectrometer to give it its full name, was a clever little instrument on Rosetta that mapped and studied the nature of the solids and the temperature on the surface of the nucleus. William hoped this data would help identify the best landing sites.

“What do we know about that area up there? Grid reference 123. 773. 109?”

Ginny tapped in the coordinates and a flurry of data came up on one of the large side screens at the front.

“Looks promising. Once we find three more possible landing sites, we’ll make a decision.”

Darya came over to join them, clutching a computer printout. “Ginny, I´ve got some interesting readings from CONSERT.” This was theComet Nucleus Sounding Experiment by Radiowave Transmission. It probed the comet's interior by studying radio waves that are reflected and scattered by the nucleus.

“The frequencies are off by quite a large margin. I would like you to recalibrate.”

Ginny took the piece of paper from Darya and examined it briefly. “Ok, but I’m not sure how easy that’s gonna be.”

Darya took a chewed pen out of her mouth. “You are the software analyst, which is your job, no?” she said brusquely.

Ginny’s face took on a faint pink glow. “Sorry, yes, but it’s just that there may be nothing wrong with CONSERT. Maybe our assumptions about the composition of the nucleus are off.”

“Yes, well,” Darya continued, her Russian accent making the “w” a harsh “v”. “That is why we need a competent software analyst, so that we do not need to rely on assumptions.”

William’s eyes flickered between his two co-workers.

“Will, you have company,” someone called out from somewhere. William turned round to see the familiar face of Irene Basterrika walking towards him accompanied by two men, neither of whom he recognised.

She looked happy, positively exuberant even.

“Things are getting pretty exciting here,” she smiled.

“We think so. We’re almost done selecting possible landing sites.”

“Excellent.” Irene glanced at her companions. “Let me introduce you to William Macey. William, this is Lucas Benocci, from the Council of the European Union,” she said, indicating a tall, slightly overweight man in a dark pin-stripe suit.

“Ah, yes, I heard there were politicians around.”

Irene attempted a subtle glare. “And this is Jeremy Bumstead, Bishop of Sheffield.” A tall slim man in a slightly rumpled light-grey suit nodded a hello. From the deep furrows in his face, he looked to be in his early sixties but he had a thick head of brown hair and a muscular body which radiated good health. “William is Spacecraft Operations Manager here at the European Space Agency's Control Centre,” Irene explained.

The politician extended his large flabby hand. “Good to meet you, William. I chair the Competitiveness Council, something I’m sure you have never heard of, no?”

He spoke with a degree of fluency yet with an unmistakable singsong Italian accent.

“Well, er…” William half said, half laughed.

“Don´t worry. We oversee a variety of areas within the European Union, like research and innovation, and space. I hope this is not bad time to visit?”

“Well that depends on why you’re here, doesn’t it?” William replied, putting on his best fake smile for Irene’s benefit. Irene shot him a look, half pleading, half warning.

The politician looked around the room.

“Impressive. So, tell me, do you think this is all, what’s the word, worthwhile?”

“I’m sorry?”

“Chasing a comet is expensive, no? I was just wondering if it was money well spent.”

“Seriously? Comets are among the most primitive objects in the Solar System. They carry essential information about our origins. Yes, I would say that was worth it.”

“Yes, Mr Macey, I have done my research. Their chemical compositions have not changed much since their formation, so they are a chemical... what is the word… snapshot, yes? They are a snapshot of the Solar System when it was very young, more than 4600 million years ago.”

William was impressed. He gestured to the large overhead screens.

“These pictures you can see up there are impressive but the best is yet to come. When we land our probe on the surface of the comet, who knows what we might find.”

“Indeed,” smiled the minister. “But, to be devil’s advocate here, given the cost of this Project, why would you want to?”

William hesitated. He could feel his stomach muscles tense up. “By landing on the comet, Philae will allow us to reconstruct the history of our own part of space. There’s a lot we still don’t know. Did comets contribute to the beginnings of life on Earth?”

“Life on earth?” the Bishop interrupted. “Are you suggesting life came from space?” His raised eyebrows conveyed his doubt.

“Well, not life as you mean it, but the building blocks of life, the complex organic molecules that we need to build up DNA, for example. Scientists still haven’t found a way to explain how they were originally synthesised in the primordial stew.”

The Italian politician nodded slowly. “I get it, there are lots to learn. But the thing is, I have a budgetary meeting of ministers from the European Union next week and some of them have openly questioned whether this mission is worth the money. Mr Macey, don’t misunderstand me, I appreciate the scientific value of this mission. But the world is changing. The public, for better or worse, are becoming more aware of the idea of governments having budgets. That the money you spend on one thing, you no have left to spend on something else.”

“Where do you stand on this, er….?” William hesitated, unsure how to address the clergyman.

“Please, call me Jeremy. To be sure, I am a supporter of science.” The Bishop spoke with a soft Irish accent, his words coming out slowly, as if he was deliberating each phrase as he said it. “But I do have to agree with Lucas here that one must never forget science has social costs as well as social benefits. I sit on the Archbishop’s Council. Our role is what we like to think of as contributing to the common good, and particularly at a time of economic hardship, that means enhancing the capacity and commitment of the Church to stand alongside people facing unemployment and financial insecurity. I have to say, with no disrespect Mr. Macey, the resources could better, utilized, shall we say, on social programs.”

“I, for one, think this is a good thing,” added Irene. “Provided it works, of course.” She gave William a steely smile as she uttered this last comment.

William had had this conversation so many times he felt he was acting out a scene in a play.

“Seriously? If you don’t think exploring the universe is a worthwhile goal, what can I say? But it´s not actually that much money when you compare it with military spending, or the health budget." William didn’t bother smiling this time.

Lucas Benocci nodded in agreement.

“Absolutely, I see your point but the problem is, William, the public may not. People can see tangible results in health care. And the military budget, are you looking at the news just now? Separatists causing mayhem in Latvia. Russia talking about the rights of Latvian Russians being trodden on. Everyone fears a repeat of what happened in the Ukraine. People want NATO planes and tanks out there."

"Then we need to educate the public about the nature of scientific endeavour.” William’s words came tumbling out of his mouth as anger overcame him. “If you agree, then maybe this is something you should be doing rather than waste my time with this devil’s advocate bullshit.”

Irene raised her hand as if to separate the men. “Ok boys, let’s calm down. I think what William is trying to say is that there are always benefits for the public, but they are not obvious. All the computer programmes we have had to create, the engineering solutions we have had to come up with.”

William took a deep breath.

“Look, Mr Benocci, maybe this project won’t change the world we live in, but the thousands of projects like this that scientists are working on at the moment all over the world, both big and small, yes, they will change the world we live in. That´s the message we need to communicate to the public.”

The politician smiled insincerely. “I will pass that on.”

As the group turned to leave, the Bishop paused. “Mr Macey, just one more question, for my own interest. Why the name Rosetta?”

“We named it after the Rosetta stone,” explained William. “Are you familiar with it?”

 “Of course,” the Bishop replied, “a stone tablet discovered in, I think, Egypt. It led to the deciphering of the Egyptian hieroglyphics though I don’t remember how, exactly.”

William explained. “No one had been able to interpret the hieroglyphics because the language was no longer spoken, so there was no reference point from which to interpret the symbols. But the Rosetta Stone, along with the hieroglyphics, had what appeared to be a translation of the text in two other languages, one of which was Ancient Greek. And the scholars knew Ancient Greek. The stone was in effect a tri-lingual dictionary. Well, we hope that Rosetta will unlock the mysteries of how the Solar System evolved.”

“Let’s hope so, Mr. Macey,” Benocci said. “As you said, it’s a risky mission. I hope nothing goes wrong.” Irene took hold of the politician’s arm.

“Let me show you some of the other installations we have here, gentlemen.” She steered the two figures away. William watched as they exited through the side door. He was suddenly aware of a presence beside him.

“Some people probably thought going to moon was a waste of money,” said Ginny. “We just have to do our thing, William. I think you’re doing a good job by the way. Sorry, I don’t mean to …”

“No, no, thank you. That’s a nice thing to say.”

“I’m sure your predecessor would be proud,” Ginny added, self-consciously.

William laughed. “Really, do you remember that German guy who came to visit? The aide to Chancellor Merkel.”

“Oh, yes. Well, I’m sure you didn’t mean to throw a cup of coffee over him.”

William frowned overdramatically. “Accidently spilled coffee, you mean?” They both laughed at the thought. He made a mental note to make sure Darya and her cappuccinos were out of reach the next time Mr. Benocci appeared.

Chapter 7

Cécile Baudin grabbed hold of her daughter’s hand. “Stay here!” The three year old, however, clearly did not want to stay anywhere. She was watching her older brother playing football in the square and knew exactly where she wanted to go. “I want to play football!” came the reply in French. A waiter came over and set down a large café au lait and an orange juice with a straw. The beautiful sunny day had given everyone, it seemed, the same idea. The outside tables of the usually quiet café were full.

“Drink your juice, sweety.”

At that moment the older brother kicked the ball high into the air. Cécile watched it rise into the air and with an intuitive physics of which she was completely unaware, unconsciously calculated the trajectory of the ball and knew a split second before it happened, exactly where it was going to land. “Merde!”

The ball came crashing down two tables to her left, narrowly missing a woman sitting on her own, doing a Sudoku puzzle.

The brother came over and looked at the ball. “I’m sorry,” he said in hesitant English. The woman stared at him without saying a word, and then slowly leaned down and picked up the ball. The boy looked at the ball and then at the woman. Would she? Wouldn’t she? The woman passed the boy the ball and returned to her puzzle. At that moment her mobile phone rang. She picked it up.


“It’s me.”

“Do you have any news?”

“They fixed the thruster problem. It wasn’t serious.”

“Not serious for them maybe, but for me?”

“Don’t worry. They are about to send down the lander. It’s a very challenging operation. The density and surface roughness of the nucleus are unknown and its gravity is very low. And the coma, that’s the comet’s atmosphere, is made up of dust and god knows what crap that could mess up the instruments.”

“So you are leaving things to chance?”

“No, no. I have a plan.”

“I don’t have to remind you that I represent some very powerful interests who are under financial pressure right now. If this mission fails spectacularly, it will suit their agenda very well. And their agenda is my agenda. I hope we understand each other.”

The woman ended the call without waiting for a reply. Maybe it was time to consider a plan B.

Chapter 8

November 4th 2014. Nieder-Ramstadt, Germany


The light rain suddenly turned into a heavy downpour, reducing visibility for the driver to almost zero. The car slowed down to a crawl as it crossed the central square of the small village. The noise of the rain drumming on the car roof drowned out the sound of the music coming from the radio. The noise was so loud that for a moment the driver wondered if it might actually dent the roof. We can send a space probe six hundred million kilometres through hostile space without a scratch but my car gets damaged driving home in a rainstorm.

William peered through the windscreen. In the darkness, the rain droplets reflected the light from street lamps and shop signs, appearing to William´s eyes as pinpoints of light flashing in the blackness. A second later the familiar neon sign of the Café Bar Holstein emerged on his right through the haze of rain and spray. William pulled into a small car park to the side of the bar and stopped. Cutting the engine, the sound of the rain echoed around the car. Would it ease off in a minute? He knew it probably would but he had a psychological affliction in these situations. Once he had stopped the car, he just had to get out. There was somehow something wrong with just sitting in a car, waiting. He could sit in a bar and wait, but not a car. Even if deadly football sized hailstones were raining down, he would still have to get out. Was it a man thing, he wondered? He would have to ask his sister-in-law, the psychologist, if this was a known syndrome.

William opened the car door and sprinted across the car park to the café entrance. Pushing open the wooden door, he stepped into the warm welcoming interior. Wiping the rain from his face, he looked around the room. Thick wooden beams covered the low ceiling. The carved pine furniture gave the café an Alpine look. Spotting the familiar face sitting in a side booth at the back, he went over and sat down.

“Sorry, I’m late. This rain was awful to drive in.”

A young waitress came over to take his order.

“A beer, please.” William ordered in his thickly accented German. “Do you want something?” he asked the woman seated opposite him.

“Nothing for me” she said to the waitress with a smile. She turned to William.

“Thank you for coming. I know it’s a bit strange, asking you to meet here but as I said on the phone, I didn’t want to talk at work.”

Irene Basterrika looked tired. William had come out of curiosity. He could not begin to imagine why she would want to talk here unless…. was he being fired? Was this about that Italian minister? He hadn’t been rude, had he? He’d just argued his point. Wasn’t that was he was supposed to do?

“Look, Irene, if there is a problem with Mr Benocci, I can…”

Irene waved her hand, cutting him off. “William, this is not about you.”

For the first time William noticed another coat lying on the empty seat next to Irene. At that moment a tall, thin man wearing a green cardigan emerged from the bathroom, came over and joined them at the table.

“William, may I introduce Mr Shaw. Mr Shaw, this is William Macey.”

The man looked William up and down, but didn’t speak.

“Mr Shaw is a security specialist. He works for the United States government. As commercial partners in the mission, they help us out in security issues from time to time."

William remained silent.

“Mr Shaw, maybe you could explain the situation better than me,” Irene suggested.

“Mr Macey, how well do you know Darya Kazankov?” The man had what William thought was a southern states accent.

“Darya, well, I’ve known here for about eight years.”

“But she’s only been at the European Space Agency for six years, if I am not mistaken?”

“Yes… I knew her when she worked for Roscosmos, that’s the ….”

“The Russian Federal Space Agency,” interjected the American “Yes, I know what it means.”

“And is there some problem with that?” William snapped back. “With me knowing someone from Russian Federal Space Agency? I know Russia is not the flavour of the month right now but there are a lot of dedicated Russians working outside Russia.” It was late, and William felt too tired to try to hide his annoyance. “Is this why I’m here, Irene?”

“Perhaps Mr. Shaw, William would understand more if you told him what is concerning you.”

“We think we have intercepted encoded messages being sent from within the control complex.”

Questions burst into William´s mind, piling up one on top of the other. William tried hard to focus. “I don´t understand. What sort of messages? How do you know?” 

“We monitor all radio communication frequencies, Mr. Macey.”

“You´re eavesdropping on us?” William was too surprised to be aggrieved.

“No, we´re not eavesdropping. There´s no one actually listening to anyone. Our computers use special algorithms that simply detect anything out of the ordinary, that’s all. In this case, we´ve been picking up regular signals which are highly encrypted. In fact, it was the sophistication of the encryption which rang alarm bells. This is beyond something you would expect from a Blackberry. It could be military. It’s not very discreet, which is in itself odd.”

“You mean it might have been designed to be seen?” Irene added. “Someone wants us to get worried?”

“Well, I am paid to look at every possibility, so I have to assume it is genuine, but that could be the explanation.”

“What would be the point of that?” William asked, his confusion growing.

“Well, is there a person, group or organization, which is hostile to your objectives? Someone who might want to muddy the waters. Create bad media coverage?”

William thought of the minister but it was Irene who answered, “There are budgetary issues. Some people would rather the money allocated to us went elsewhere. I didn’t have a chance to tell you, William, but that minister I introduced you to the other day, Lukas Benocci, is also head of the European Defense Spending sub-committee."

William found this all rather far-fetched.

“I’m sorry, but much as it pains me to be defending Mr. Benocci, I find it hard to believe he would bother playing games like this.”

The American shifted in his seat. The waitress appeared with a beer. When she had gone William continued.

“And what does any of this have to do with Darya?”

The American paused before continuing. His deep brown eyes focused on William.

“I mentioned Darya because of another lead. We suspect some Russian interest in the project. The Russians are becoming worried about their access to rare earth metals. I’m sure you’re aware that China has for a long time been investing heavily in mining companies because as its economy grows, particularly the high tech sector, it is going to be increasingly reliant on some of these rare metals, and they are, well, as the name suggests, rare. And now the Russians are also beginning to take a long-term strategic interest in them. They are worried that other countries may try to corner the market if they have unfettered access to the metals.”

William looked puzzled. “I’m sorry, I may have missed something, but what has any of this got to do with the Rosetta space mission?”

“Well, apparently the Russians are worried that we might find rare earth metals.”

William was now certain he was missing something.

“On the comet?”


William massaged his forehead with his fingers. He could feel the dull throb of a headache coming on. “Look, I don’t wish to be rude, I’m sure you know what you’re talking about but even if we did find rare metals on the comet, which I seriously doubt, by the way, they would be 400 million miles away in deep space.  It’s not as if you could bring the comet home, could you?”

Irene and the American exchanged glances.

Irene broke the silence. “It seems the Russians think we could.”

None of this was making any sense to William. Maybe it was the late hour. “And you suspect Darya of leaking information?”

Irene leaned closer, adding a conspiratorial air to the conversation. “We just want to monitor her workstation. She need never know. Taking her off the mission, that’s your call, William. What do you want to do?”


William finally got home around midnight. His wife and child were fast asleep upstairs in their small cottage. They lived on the edge of a forest. His German and Spanish colleagues could not understand why he chose to commute 45 minutes a day by car when he could have rented a nice apartment in the centre of town. But he was English. He had tried to explain that for the English, the dream was to escape the city, to live in the country. To go home to silence. “It’s like living in a graveyard” was Maria Lopez’s reaction, his Spanish secretary. Well, yes, thought William, that’s the point. 

He grabbed a Heineken from the fridge and sat on the sofa. Had Dave had this to deal with? He asked himself. Tomorrow was the big day. They had chosen the landing site and they were going to land Philae on the surface of the comet. He could sit here right now and make a very long list of problems that could happen over the next twenty-four hours. Real problems, ones that could actually happen. This, he was paid to worry about. But fretting over the possible international political ramification of a totally bonkers idea about capturing a comet? No, whoever this Mr. Shaw was, he needed to learn a little more science and a little less espionage. Worry about what we are going to do, not on what some loony thinks we could do.

He looked up at the sound of a door creaking. His wife, Kirsty, poked her head around the door.

“Is everything Ok? There weren’t any problems were there? I mean, at the meeting?”

She came and plumped herself down next to him on the sofa, her long blond curly hair overflowing from the top of the dressing gown wrapped tightly around her.

“Yes and no,” he responded, stifling a yawn. William gave his wife a brief résumé of what had been said in the bar. He missed out the part about Darya. “You’ve had more managerial experience than me,” William continued, finishing off the last drops at the bottom of the can. His wife had been working as a senior lecturer at the local university for the last five years. “Do I just have to accept people coming to me with any old nonsense?”

Kirsty gave him an infectious smile that melted his brooding exterior. “If it’s a worry for them, it’s a worry for you.”

“But where do you draw the line?”

“I’d say when you act, not when you listen. Sometime you have to suffer fools gladly. I do.”

“Present company accepted?” William added, leaning over to kiss her.


Chapter 9

November 2014

200 kilometres away, the Rosetta spacecraft slowly began its final approach to the icy nucleus. Its main vertical thruster had slowed the orbiter down to almost the same speed as the comet with which it was soon to rendezvous. The scientific instruments mounted on the 'top' of the black body, known as the Payload Support Module, began to take a slew of readings from the approaching ball of ice, checking the comet’s spin-axis orientation and angular velocity.

Closer and closer, the orbiter crept up on her prey.


25 kilometres from the comet, 24 auxiliary thrusters gently began to fire, one by one, in a choreographed display for an audience of stars, putting the craft into orbit around the comet.

Chapter 10

The Rosetta Mission Operations Centre

Darmstadt, Germany

November 5th 13:45


The control room was a hive of activity and yet strangely quiet. After twenty years of preparation, the flight team knew the meaning of patience. Rows of headset-clad flight engineers busied themselves with their final preparations. As well as the usual flight engineers and spacecraft operators, all the flight analysts, flight dynamics team, the ground facilities crew and software support team were there. A faint hum came from the group of assembled journalists and camera crews. For better or worse, whatever happened next was going to be broadcast live around the world.

Ginny looked around the room. She could feel an element of tension too, but the honest fact was the team had worked incredibly hard for years for this moment. If there was a feeling of confidence, it was simply that of professionals who had done a good job and knew it. Yes, things could go wrong. She knew that. But this mission should be a well-deserved success, touch wood. Just thinking the thought made her touch the table top, almost as a reflex action.

Darya, who was sat next to her, gave her an enquiring look.

“Superstition,” she said, by way of explanation.

She hadn’t seen any rabbit´s feet around, but it wouldn´t have surprised her.

Darya knocked on the table with her knuckles. “Plastic.”

Ginny couldn’t tell if the problem with Darya was just down to Russian brusqueness or if it was genuine hostility. She eyed her colleague warily.

“I heard that at NASA´s Jet Propulsion Laboratory the flight controllers munch peanuts during particularly risky maneuvers,” Ginny said, as a friendly overture.

Darya didn’t make any indication of having heard her.

“And at Kennedy Space Centre,” she went on “the launch controllers eat a meal of beans and cornbread. Whatever cornbread is.” It seemed that even in the era of scientific rationality, when faced with uncertainty; superstition could ease people’s minds.

“Do you have any ... routines you like to go through?”

“I drink Cappuccinos,” Darya replied after a long pause.

“Oh, really? You often drink cappuccino….oh, I see, very funny. I suppose you Russians are above superstition. Did decades of Marxist doctrine eliminate it?”

“Hardly. If anything, it made it worse. More reason to turn to faith when you feel otherwise powerless,” Darya said without looking up.

“And that includes Russian scientists?”

“I spend 5 years working for the Russian Federal Space Agency. The crew of the Soyuz missions is not allowed to attend the rollout of the Soyuz rocket to the launch area – is bad luck. Instead, they have to have a haircut. Go figure. Still, we have good safety record, so maybe it works.”

“Do you miss Russia?” Ginny asked hesitantly.

Darya stopped typing and nodded imperceptibly. “It’s my home. I have wondered if, as a scientist, I should be there. Russia is still an emerging nation is many respects. But I don’t like the political climate there.” Darya absentmindedly ran her fingers over her mouse pad. It showed a painting of a street scene, deep in snow. A bustling crowd queued up outside a theatre. Horse sledges and a boy in the foreground selling food gave the scene an almost circus feel. Only the Cyrillic letters on a sign gave a clue to where it was set. “I miss winters. And not liking the political climate, well, that practically defines a Russian” she said with a husky laugh. “It is what has driven us on. So, you know, I wonder.”

William’s voice interrupted her thoughts.

 “OK everyone, we are preparing to launch the Philae lander. Let’s just do a quick run through all systems.” His voice brought a hush to the control room.

“Flight dynamics go.”

“Propulsion systems go.”

“Telemetry systems go.”

“Orbital thrusters go.”

“Cameras 1, 2 and 3 go.”

“Deep Space Antenna 1 go.”


Ginny looked up at a picture of the slowly revolving comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko. In fact, it was not the comet that was revolving but the Rosetta space probe, now in a slow orbit one km from the icy nucleus.

“Ok, launch Philae.”

“And now we wait,” murmured William, looking at his watch: 13: 49.

Time: 14:40 

403 million miles away the Rosetta space craft’s orbital thrusters gently fired, slowly aligning it with the chosen landing site. The craft began to spin counterclockwise for three minutes then stopped. A laser rangefinder fired seven brief pulses of light at the comets surface, instantaneously calculating range and trajectory. An instant later, a small hexagonal silver box self-ejected from the Rosetta orbiter and drifted towards the comet at a speed of 1 metre a second, the speed of a slow walk on summer’s day. Once clear of the orbiter, three legs unfolded ready for a gentle touchdown of the Philae lander on comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko. 

The whole team could not help but keep glancing up at the image of the comet, displayed on the large central screen, even though they knew full well that being so far away, it would actually take about 50 minutes for the images to travel back to earth. What they saw was the past. But they couldn’t help it. Of all our senses, vision still dominated. They wanted to see it happen.

William felt a pull on his arm. He turned round to find Ginny standing next to a small balding man wearing an ill-fitting suit.

“William, I am sorry to disturb you. This is the astro-geologist I was telling you about."

“Hi, Mike Slade.” The man’s hand shot out in greeting. “From Alexo Space Technologies. We’re based in Houston, Texas. Thanks for having me here.” Undisguised enthusiasm radiated from his rosy cheeked face.

“A pleasure. Er… why are you here?”

“Oh, well, I’m just really here in an observer capacity, you know.”

William didn’t. “Observing what?” William probed, gently.

“Oh, yes. Well, I’m interested in the chemical make-up of the comet. I’m particularly interested in your Sample and Distribution Device. Hey, I hear you actually designed it?”

This was a drill on the Philae Lander designed to drill more than 20 cm into the surface of the nucleus and collect samples for inspection. 

“Yes, back in my engineering days,” William replied.

“We’ve already got some interesting data about the composition of the nucleus from the Visible and Infrared Thermal Imaging Spectrometer aboard the Rosetta orbiter,” Ginny added.

“Well blow me down, that’s why I’m here. I have a theory about that,” Mike beamed. “I’ve done some calculations of the spectra of the tail of various comets of this type, and I think we may find rare earth metals. In particular, Lanthanum and Erbium. A lot of hybrid cars nowadays carry about four and a half kilos of lanthanum.”

“Really?” replied William, trying to sound interested. “That´s a lot.”

“And Erbium is used in the optical fibers. The metal amplifies the pulses. Again, it’s the future.”

William could see Ginny’s confusion.

“Fascinating, Mike. Just one thing, how are you going to get access to these rare metals?”

For the first time William detected a hint of nervousness in the astro-geologist.

“Well, I’ve done some calculations, and I think we could capture the comet and put it in a high earth orbit.”

Ginny stared wide-eyed.

“You plan to mine it?” she asked.

“Darn tooting. You know what, a Congressman recently proposed an ASTEROIDS Act. It aims to give US companies ownership over resources obtained from space exploration. People are looking into this. Anyway, I put in a proposal. It might work. You can’t get lard unless you boil the hog, as my grandma used to say.”

“Did she? Well, Mike, sounds interesting. I’m not sure about your mining idea, but feel free to take a look around.” With a subtle push of the arm William launched the astro-geologist off into the room. William looked at Ginny.

“Ginny, seriously. Bringing a comet into orbit. I really don’t have time for this.”

“I know, I’m sorry. Irene told me that his company have helped fund our mission, so we have been asked to show him around.” The corner of her mouth twitched in a weak smile.

As if things could not get any worse, Philip appeared.

“Someone said that American you were talking to wants to capture our comet and place it in orbit.”

“More or less,” William replied, in what he hoped was a casually dismissive tone.

“More or less? Either you can or you can’t, William. And in point of fact, you can’t capture a ten million tonne comet and put it in orbit around a planet. I assumed you told him it was a ridiculous idea.”

“I’m the manager Philip. I’m not really supposed to say things like that now.”

“I disagree. William, as Flight Operations Manager, these people need leadership. Especially the less scientifically able.”

“Less scientifically able? I’ll be sure to make a note of that phrase in my diary tonight, thank you Philip.”

“You’re welcome. And by the way, we’re receiving signals from Rosetta. We´ve got a video stream from the Lander Imaging System. We should have visuals up any moment now.”

William spun round and headed to the front row of computer monitors.

“Data stream coming in clear,” called out a flight engineer at the back of the room.

“All systems operating normally. Legs deployed correctly. Speed OK.”

A new picture of the comet appeared on the screen above. In fact, two pictures split the screen. Although it was really 50 minutes old, the sensation that they were watching the lander’s descent in real time was irresistible. A camera mounted under the lander showed the approaching surface from what William judged to be a distance of 500 hundred metres. The other picture came from a side-mounted camera, showing a similar view. Silence filled the room. No one said anything for there was nothing to say. It was fate. It had in fact already happened. All anyone could do now was watch. Watch and hope. The legs of the lander had been built to cope with an uneven surface of up to 30 degrees and the reconnaissance images indicated a much smoother surface at the landing site. But, you never knew.

At a speed of one metre a second, Philae floated down, nearer and nearer. The comet’s atmosphere, or coma, was detectable every now and then by glints of what must be dust particles reflecting the distant sun. As the lander approached, more and more details of the surface became clearer.

“Are we routing this to the news networks?”

“It’s being uploaded automatically to about three dozen networks, William,” came the voice of Irene. She came up to him and patted him on the back. “They are going to eat this up. Look at that! If I forget to say it, well done.”

William thought of saying something about not counting chickens, but left it. It did look good.

Touchdown. The underside camera went dark. The side camera briefly showed the icy surface in glorious high definition detail before a cloud of dust obscured the picture. A technician tapped on her monitor and the picture zoomed in on a long tube like appendage on the side of the lander. A hush came over the room.

An onlooker standing to the right of William let out a sigh.

“Is there a problem?” Mike asked, sensing disquiet among his colleagues.

 “That’s one of the harpoons,” explained the flight manager.  “They are set to fire automatically on touchdown to anchor the lander to the ground and prevent it floating away. The comet's gravity is extremely weak. It doesn’t seem to have fired.”

The picture became fuzzy and distorted.

“Darya, can we get confirmation of the harpoon deployment?”

Darya ran back to a workstation where Ginny was huddled down with two pony-tailed engineers.

“Ginny, run up the diagnostics of the hydraulics.”

“I’m trying, Darya, I’m trying. It’ll take a bit of time,” she said without looking up.

“Yes, well we do not have time,” Darya responded curtly. “We need to know now Ginny. In ten minutes the lander could be floating god knows where.”

A few minutes later, Darya looked up. William caught her frown. She took a half chewed pen out of her mouth. “Is not looking good, William but we can’t be certain. If the harpoons didn’t fire, it probably will bounce off the surface. We might catch it in one of Rosetta’s cameras.”

“Do you think the gravity of the comet might be enough to stop it floating off into space?” one of the engineers asked, looking up.

William’s fingers kneaded the skin at the base of his neck.  “Touch and go,” he responded. Looking around the room at the assembled news media, William felt a cold sweat come over him. A growing murmur told him they had sensed there was a problem. An ice bucket full of bottles of champagne sat expectantly on a table in the corner. He breathed out slowly. What he would give to be alone right now.

Chapter 11

Liepnas Forest, Latvia.

November 5th  2014

Time:  18:42 Central European Time


The heavy rain beat down on the windshield, the windscreen wipers doing double time in a vain attempt to clear the rivers of water gushing across the glass. Going out in this was not a good idea, Commander Nick Clarkson thought to himself. We have almost no visibility and God knows what is out there. A thunderclap boomed off in the distance. As its echoes died away, a lightning flash suddenly illuminated the inside of the cockpit.

The Merlin HC4 helicopter was flying low over the dense forest. The pilot wrestled with the controls as another heavy gust of wind hit the fuselage.

“Should we go higher?” the co-pilot asked, scanning the horizon with his chin-mounted infrared imaging sensor.

For Lieutenant Ben Brown, at age 24, this was his first NATO mission as co-pilot, and only his second flying for the Royal Navy’s Commando Helicopter Force, or “Junglies” as they were known throughout the world, a name they won supporting the Royal Marines and Army in the jungles of Malaysia in the 60s. He wasn’t scared, but in these dreadful flying conditions, he was extremely glad to be with Commander Clarkson. The commander had a reputation of being pretty near the best Merlin pilot in the Fleet Air Arm. Some of the guys even claimed it was Clarkson himself who had landed that half destroyed Merlin on the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush in the Mediterranean last month. Landing a craft that had collided mid air with a Russian MIG!

“Best to stay as low as we can to avoid radar,” the Commander said, “Some of the hostiles are reported to have got hold of radar-equipped surface to air missiles, possibly Buk’s. We think it may have been that which downed the Latvian transport plane yesterday.”

Another strong gust of wind tried to wrestle control of the helicopter from the Commander. The Merlin was designed for operating in extreme weather conditions; the aircraft's control systems allowed it to maintain a stable hover in 74 kilometres an hour crosswinds. But this was pushing it.

The pilot checked the altimeter. 200 feet. They were shaving the trees.

“Radar activated Buk’s? How does a ragbag people’s militia made up of a few disgruntled farmers come across those, I wonder? Not something you pick up at the local market.”

“Yes, well, Benjamin, I wish it were disgruntled farmers we were up against but I fear they are Russian troops. Just as disgruntled but better trained.”

The Merlin helicopter was carrying 24 marines in the back. This was a risky operation even without the weather. Flying low over dense forest at night looking for a landing strip no bigger than half a rugby pitch. The idea was for the marines to seek out and destroy a nearby separatist base from which attacks on the nearby gas pipeline had been launched. As NATO troops on Latvian soil, they had full authority to engage hostile forces, unlike their comrades in the Ukraine earlier in the year, the Ukraine not being a signed up member of NATO. They were supposed to be engaging hostile Latvian separatists but NATO intelligence strongly hinted that these were Russian troops, as pretty much the whole world had already guessed. And Russian troops were not going to lie down without a fight. Jesus! Commander Clarkson thought. NATO troops engaging Russian troops head on. Are any of those Muppet politicians back home actually taking this in? One morning they’re likely to wake up to find that they’ve walked into a full-scale war.

A faint crackling voice came over the intercom. “Mobile 1, this is Ground Fox 2, over.”

The co-pilot leant forward and flicked a red switch to boost the signal.

“Ground Fox 2, this is Mobile 1, over.”

“Mobile 1, what is your status, over?”

“Ground Fox 2, we are presently 15 clicks north-north east of target. I estimate rendezvous in 22 minutes. Visibility bad. I repeat visibility bad. Over.”

“Mobile 1, roger that. Be advised, Ground station Zebra has picked up two incomings, 25 clicks due south, on an intercept course. We do not know if they are friendly, I repeat, we do not know if the are friendly, over.”

“Roger that, Ground Fox 2. We will take precautionary measures. Over.”

“Mobile 1, over and out.”

Ben flicked the toggle back and pressed a switch, instantly illuminating a small LED screen to his right.

“Satellite tracking system activated. If a stray pigeon so much as flaps his wings in our direction, we’ll know about it.”