Accompanied by a great deal of enthusiasm from observers, ESA’s comet chaser, Rosetta, has ‘woken up’ from hibernation. But is space science a sensible use of resources?
Space science missions generate strong emotions. While some find them fascinating, others consider them a waste of money because the information they gather often has little or no practical application. So, at the start of the final phase of ESA’s Rosetta mission, to chase, land on and investigate the hitherto-obscure comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, we asked whether our readers thought missions such as this were a good use of finite resources. We were quite surprised by how strongly in favour the 604 respondents were.
A total of 87 per cent of respondents picked options which were in favour of space science. The largest group, 38 per cent, said that the money spent on space science goes towards R&D and engineering on Earth, while 22 per cent believed that seeking knowledge about the universe is a worthy end in itself. A slightly smaller group, 20 per cent, said that the rigours of space science, with inescapable deadlines and the need to meet arduous conditions, was a good thing for technology development, while 7 per cent thought that the ability of space science to enthuse people to take up STEM studies and careers was the most important point in its favour. The same number adopted the most strongly-opposed position, saying that the resources should be spent directly on tackling human problems on Earth, while the smallest group, 6 per cent, said that it was only worthwhile if it generated money-making industrial spin-offs.
Rosetta has now started its journey towards the comet, and is expected to rendezvous in October. Its on-board lander, Philae, will attempt touchdown in November. The UK’s contribution towards Philae includes a compact laboratory, Ptolemy, which will look for debris left over from the formation of the Solar System; harpoons which will help the lander approach the comet; and a stabiliser for its final approach phase.