ACT News

Scientists behind Rosetta comet landing hope mission inspires next generation

Inspiring a strong response from the population is the secret to attracting funding for science, and the men behind the Rosetta mission to chase and land on a comet hope the feat will do just that.

The European Space Agency's head of missions operations Paolo Ferri and senior science adviser Mark McCaughrean were part of a generation inspired by the moon landing.

The European Space Agency’s senior science adviser Mark McCaughrean and head of missions operations Paolo Ferri at CSIRO ...
The European Space Agency’s senior science adviser Mark McCaughrean and head of missions operations Paolo Ferri at CSIRO Discovery Centre ahead of a presentation on the Rosetta mission. Photo: Graham Tidy

Both hope the world-first comet landing, thought of by some as "Europe's moon landing", will help usher in a new generation of scientists.

While for many the $2 billion project reached its "spectacular" peak when the Philae lander touched down on the comet last November, the complex operation was 10 years in the making, and Dr Ferri was there from the start.

"It's a difficult period all over the world in Europe and Australia, science is not the top priority," he said.

"You hear from politicians that it should be but since science doesn't give you the immediate result it's very difficult to invest in that when you have limited resources.

"The right way [to attract funding] is to show the politician your science is getting a strong interest in the population … a politician judges it on how the electors are reacting."

The pair met with representatives from the Department of Industry and ACMA before delivering a presentation in Canberra on Thursday night.  Earlier in the week they visited the ESA's New Norcia radio antenna in Western Australia. The station provides constant communication between the spacecraft and the control centre in Darmstadt, Germany.

But Canberra's own antenna at Tidbinbilla also played a role in the historic mission, providing vital back-up communications and extra coverage during critical phases.

Professor McCaughrean said many people were under the misapprehension the mission was all about the landing, but it was only about 15 per cent of the total project and happened at a relatively uninteresting time before the current "busier" phase as the icy comet becomes more active as it nears the sun.

"That's the big phase for us scientifically, watching the comet come to life," he said.

As well as taking the first images from the pumice-like surface of a comet, unchanged for 4.5 billion years since the birth of the solar system, the scientific data collected during the mission will be used to analyse its make-up and find out what role if any comets played in bringing water and the building blocks of life to Earth.

So far analysis suggests the comet's water has a different composition to Earth's.

Beyond the sheer distance of the 6.5 billion kilometre journey, Dr Ferri said the most "operationally and emotionally" challenging parts of the flight was losing the constant link with the spacecraft when it went into hibernation for two years while it was too far from the sun for its solar cells.

The other challenge was using the gravity of Earth to "slingshot" the spacecraft into orbit around the comet.

"It's completely different from normal spaceflight, where you have the dominating force of the gravity of the planet or the sun which determines your trajectory," he said.

"In this case there is no dominating force so to fly around the comet you have to accurately model everything … while we were flying."