One giant step for mankind....

Written by: Tim Fryer | Published:

It was nice to have a few days when the top news story in the national press was genuinely interesting. Space probe Rosetta's prompt arrival in August at comet G67, followed by months of inspection from its orbit, culminated in the landing of the Philae lander in mid November. A hop and a skip on landing meant that its resting place was not on the convenient flat spot intended – and will have consequences in terms of the information it transmits back – but it didn't seem to take the gloss off an incredible human achievement.

To land a human device on a spinning rock that measures no more that 6.5km in any direction, travelling at approximately 135,000 km/hour and at a distance (currently) from the Earth of 480 million kilometres, is a staggering achievement. It is hoped of course that Philae will be able to contribute further to the programme if it can summon up the power, but Rosetta will continue its observational duties for a further year. With the information gathered we will, say the scientists, have a better understanding of comets, the birth of the solar system and maybe even the start of life on earth (was life-giving water first delivered by comet?).

However, such endeavour comes at a cost – around €1.3bn – and along with the high profile the project has enjoyed recently there has come those who opine that this is a lot of money, and for what? Does such knowledge actually have any effect on modern life? Wouldn't that money be better spent on hospitals and schools?

The truth is that fundamental knowledge is invaluable. We may not know why yet, it may be decades or centuries before that information fits into a bigger, more important and more useful picture.

But perhaps more immediately, the science, the maths and the engineering behind this feat are both astounding and inspiring.

Rosetta is the sort of project that will spawn another generation of engineers who may end up designing motors or toys or sports helmets [all in this issue!] rather than spacecraft, but they will be the lifeblood of our sector in the future. Maybe Rosetta is a giant step for mankind that prompts many other smaller steps for budding engineers.

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