Out of this World: How a York University grad helped put a probe on a distant comet

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Night skyThe late American astronaut Neil Armstrong changed the world when he became the first man to walk on the moon in 1969. The historical Apollo 11 moon landing has been described by Chris Hadfield, the first Canadian to walk in space in 2001, as a “watershed moment” that inspired him and many others who followed him to suit up for space.

Jakub Urbanek (BASC ’09) was not one of them. But like Armstrong and Hadfield, Urbanek’s share of awe-inspiring space adventure has been well documented around the world. He is part of a team that recently made history by successfully landing the first-ever robotic probe on a comet.

“It’s remote control,” Urbanek says. “We were sitting here in Germany sending up commands to the spacecraft.”

The Rosetta spacecraft, also known as Europe’s comet chaser, launched into space in March 2004 to track down Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, a relatively small object of about four kilometres in diameter and moving at a speed as great as 135,000 kilometres per hour. At that time, Urbanek was in high school and was not particularly interested in space. But that same year at a mini-orientation and campus tour at York University, he made an “unexpected decision” to study space engineering.

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