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Rosetta stone for understanding science application

As I write this, a chunk of metal and carbon fibre about the size of a double wardrobe is in orbit around a comet 400 million miles from Earth.


Comet 67P Churymov-Gerasimenko imaged by Rosetta on 3rd August

Packed with electronics and analysis equipment, the Rosetta probe was launched ten years ago with the ambitious goal of intercepting a comet to investigate its composition — a deep-frozen sample of the solar system as it was during its formation, 4.6 billion years ago. But what seemed like a far-fetched notion back in the ’90s is now happening: after three orbits around Earth, one around Mars and a slingshot around Jupiter, during which it was in electronic hibernation, Rosetta is now on-station at Comet 67P Churymov-Gerasimenko and ready for the next part of the mission: to send a lander, called Philae, in to land on the comet itself in November.


Rosetta in the cleanroom in 2003

As well as being a mindboggling achievement of engineering in itself, Rosetta and Philae are an effective riposte to those who believe that space exploration missions such as these are a scientific indulgence and of no practical use on Earth for among Philae’s instruments is a mobile laboratory called Ptolemy. Built by the Open University and the Rutherford-Appleton Laboratory’s Space division with EPSRC and Wellcome Trust funding, Ptolemy is about as big as a shoebox and uses as much power as an incandescent lightbulb. Within that small space, Ptolemy contains miniature ovens, valves, a supply of helium and a mass spectrometer and analysis equipment. Once on the comet surface, Ptolemy will test a few grains of the icy matter of the comet and determine, with great accuracy, the isotopes which make up the sample. For planetary scientists, this will provide evidence of how the solar system formed: evidence which can’t be gathered any other way because the distant trajectory of the comet in deep space has preserved its composition; tectonics and erosion removed this material from planets aeons ago. But it’s also of direct benefit on Earth; and could save lives.


The Ptolemy device: about the size of a shoebox, it packs in technology that would normally fill a room

To withstand the rigours of deep space, Ptolemy had to be made simple and robust. More than ten years on from its manufacture, its technology is now being used to develop breath tests to detect stomach ulcers, which are caused by an infection that has been linked to cancer; the techniques it uses are being adapted to detect and monitor bed bug infestations.

When Ptolemy was developed, it was thought that its simplicity and sensitivity could be used to detect telltale chemicals that indicate tuberculosis infection, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa where rapid, accurate tests are badly needed. Although successful trials were carried out, lead researcher Geraint ‘Taff’ Thomas of the Open University tells The Engineer that it has since been superceded by a DNA-based test developed by US firm Cepheid. Thomas, who now is a director of two start-up companies based on Ptolemy technologies at the ESA Business Incubation Centre at Harwell developing the tests detailed above, tells us he intends to return to the diagnostic potential of GC-MS in the future.


Artist’s impression of Rosetta sending the Philae lander to the surface of Comet 67P-Churymov-Gerasimenko

The same technology is also to be used by BAE Systems aboard its next generation of submarines, the proposed replacement for Trident. Employed to sample the atmosphere on the submarines, the detectors will be able to measure three times as many gases with better accuracy than existing systems, and at a lower price.

None of these applications were invisaged by the team at the start of the project, which demonstrates that the exacting standards of space engineering are a fertile breeding ground for useful technologies, even when they aren’t obvious. So next time you’re tempted to think ‘Why are they spending our tax money on that?’ when you see an article about some esoteric space mission, think about Rosetta and its life-saving payload.

Readers' comments (8)

  • It looks a lot bigger than a washing machine!

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  • Sorry; it's Philae which is appliance-sized. Now corrected to more appropriate furniture.

  • Stunning stuff!! We've come a long way since light the blue touch paper and stand well back but I can't help thinking, we are barely scratching the surface. What a great era to be alive. Bring on the extra terrestrials, it surely can't be too far away now.

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  • Fantastic advances in the application of new technologies, bring on more and maybe one day the mobile phone signal won't drop out on the M1 !

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  • Now that'll be truly impressive.

  • So, are space rockets now reliable enough and cheap enough to use for the disposal of nuclear waste ?
    It must be better than burying and then putting in manned security for X number of years.

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  • Not yet, I think. It's too heavy, and the risks of putting radioactive material on top of high explosive are too great.

  • Quite a bit has happened on Earth too since the rocket that launched this probe took off - take a look at the VDU in the second picture down. I don't think they are being made any more.

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  • Fascinating and truly inspirational. Glad that it is made clear that such ground breaking technologies have side effects that benefit society. Question now is, why can't we figure out who shot down MH17, or find the previous lost malay jet? Why do we still have no proof who has gassed thousands of civilians in Syria? Where is that technology or do we known the answers, but are afraid to publish them?

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  • Fantastic achievement of Engineering
    It's a shame the Editor at the Engineer has to resort to STUPID TITLES for the articles as if we were reading the Sun!!
    We are Engineers! cut to the chase......PLEASE

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  • Let's be honest; we've had much worse than this one.

  • "know the answers but are afraid to publish them?"
    Having been advised so often by those 'in-charge' that if we spend just that little bit more [though they have been saying that since 1945, or even earlier, and 'we' have indeed paid-up year on year]-we can guarantee that there are no secrets and that our leaders will always know what is happening over the hill, it is constantly amazing to me that regularly we are 'hit' by man-made events and episodes about which 'they' appear to have no inkling: or so they say!

    Indeed society seems to be better at forecasting the weather now-a-days, than the quasi-political (and hence military) future?

    Perhaps they do know but do not want to worry us with minor matters: better that we simply work hard, pay our taxes, keep out of trouble and....
    Mike B

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