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Because Rosetta’s star tracker became confused by dust particles, the spacecraft lost contact with Earth, went into safe mode, and required the entire weekend for engineers to regain control.
“We lost contact with the spacecraft on Saturday evening for nearly 24 hours,” says Patrick Martin, ESA’s Rosetta mission manager. “Preliminary analysis by our flight dynamics team suggests that the star trackers locked on to a false star – that is, they were confused by comet dust close to the comet, as has been experienced before in the mission.” This led to spacecraft pointing errors, which triggered the safe mode. Unfortunately the star trackers then got hung in a particular sub mode requiring specific action from Earth to recover the spacecraft.
“It was an extremely dramatic weekend,” says Sylvain Lodiot, ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft operations manager.”
The spacecraft has been diving to within only a few miles of the surface of Comet 67P/C-G, which means it is flying close to the comet’s coma. The increased dust in that region has confused the star tracker in the past, but this appears to have been the most serious event yet.