Cosmic Chris launches Mars probe

Chris White from Southwick, West Sussex, at work at the European Space Agency control centre in Darmstadt. Picture: J�rgen Mai
Chris White from Southwick, West Sussex, at work at the European Space Agency control centre in Darmstadt. Picture: J�rgen Mai
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The closest most of us get to mission control is in a cinema. But for Chris White, launching and manouvering spacecraft is a daily reality.

The 36-year-old from Southwick works for the European Space Agency, and helped to launch the ExoMars project last month at the European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt.

It was the culmination of three years work for the 36-year-old, who planned the spacecraft’s systems while it was on the ground.

He described the launch of the mission, which aims to find out if life ever existed on Mars, as ‘tense’.

“I had just come off the back of a 12-hour night shift, which was when the countdown actually started, and then handed over to the day shift team who oversaw the actual launch.

“It was tense, but I wasn’t 100 per cent switched on at that point.”

Chris White, 36, from Southwick, West Sussex, at the European Space Agency control centre in Darmstadt after launching the ExoMars spacecraft. Picture: J�rgen Mai

Chris White, 36, from Southwick, West Sussex, at the European Space Agency control centre in Darmstadt after launching the ExoMars spacecraft. Picture: J�rgen Mai

Chris now lives in Germany and is back in Southwick to visit family, including his mum Gina, 61. She said: “I can’t put into words how proud we all are of him. I’ve seen him on television and it’s hard to grasp that it’s my little boy up there doing such an important job.”

Chris was also involved in the Rosetta mission, which included the unprecedented landing of the Philae probe on the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko in 2014.

He said: “What people don’t realise with that mission, and what we do in general, is the time it takes for our signals to reach the craft.”

“Right now, it takes us 12 seconds to send a message travelling at the speed of light to the ExoMars spacecraft and vice versa. But with Rosetta it took more than half an hour. It’s not as fast-paced as shows people see on television. When we celebrated the landing it happened half an hour before.”

It’s hard to grasp that it’s my little boy up there doing such an important job

Gina White, 61, from Southwick

The break is well-earned, and he’ll need it as the next phase of the mission begins.

Chris will be involved in test simulations before the ExoMars spacecraft nears its destination in October.

His team will then separate its two parts – an orbiting apparatus which will test atmospheric gases and a lander that will search for signs of life on the surface of Mars.