From landing on a comet to landing on campus

March 16, 2017

Warwick Holmes

Executive Director of Space Engineering, Warwick Holmes


Landing a spacecraft on a comet travelling 100,000 kilometres per hour was no easy feat. It took the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft 10 years to reach Comet-67P, after travelling 6 billion kilometres through the solar system. When the probe finally landed on the comet it bounced several times before getting stuck against a cliff wall, potentially ending the lander’s part of the mission. Rosetta then continued to orbit Comet-67P for a further two years, making more than 21,000 scientific observations.

The mission has been universally declared the most difficult and complex interplanetary exploration mission and spacecraft challenge since the Apollo 11 Moon landing.

This ambitious project was made possible by the work of the University of Sydney’s new Executive Director of Space Engineering, Warwick Holmes, who gave the final ‘go-for-launch’ when Rosetta shot into space in 2004. Mr Holmes’ role as an Avionic Systems Engineer with the European Space Agency (ESA) saw him help to build, test and launch the spacecraft.

What was once thought impossible was made possible through the work of some clever engineering, which is even more impressive when you consider the potential discoveries about life the mission may offer.

Warwick Holmes and Rosetta

Warwick Holmes with Rosetta probe, Philae


As the comet had not been exposed to the heat of our inner solar system it was a close representation of Earth before human life began, as it had preserved the undisturbed chemistry of our early solar system 4.5 billion years ago.

Once the probe landed on the comet, testing hoped to confirm how water first reached Earth at a time when our planet was molten rock. “We believe many comets hit Earth and carried organic chemistry, such as amino acids, which helped to make life itself,” Mr Holmes said.

“By matching the comet’s chemical makeup with the Earth’s, it should tell us more about the formation of our planet.”

The good news is that water and exotic organic chemistry have already been confirmed on the comet, however it will take up to 30 years to analyse and quantify all the data.

Mr Holmes’ passion for space started in 1969 when as a seven-year-old he watched Neil Armstrong land on the moon. In the early 1980s he pursued his passions by completing a Bachelor of Engineering (Electrical) and then a Bachelor of Science at the University of Sydney. He then took an unpaid internship with the British Aerospace Company over the summer of 1985, just to get closer to his dream of working in space.

Comet 67P

Comet-67P (image courtesy of European Space Agency)


With the mammoth Rosetta mission under his belt Mr Holmes decided to head back home – not only back to Australia but to his intellectual home, the University of Sydney.

“I couldn’t think of a better place to continue my career in space, back where it all began at the university,” said Mr Holmes.

“My 30-year career in the European space industry building 10 successful ESA spacecraft with 37 tons in orbit was only possible thanks to my two undergraduate degrees from Sydney Uni, which was the groundwork for everything that came afterwards.”

“I’m happy to be home and I’m excited about enhancing the university’s space engineering programs, creating industry collaborations and putting the university even larger on the map for space engineering.”

“Australia is in a fantastic position to contribute directly to developments in the space industry and Sydney University is in such a strong place to lead that charge.”