Australian behind Rosetta comet probe calls for European Space Agency membership
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Australian behind Rosetta comet probe calls for European Space Agency membership

A Canberra-educated avionics engineer who built the first scientific probe to land on a comet said Australia could triple its investment if it agreed to join the European Space Agency.

Warwick Holmes spent 29 years with Europe's premier space organisation, launching 10 spacecraft including the Rosetta probe which made history in November 2014 when its lander module Philae successfully grounded on a comet.

Former Canberra student and engineer Warwick Holmes with the Rosetta spacecraft, which has travelled more than 8 billion kilometres since he helped launch it in 2004.

Former Canberra student and engineer Warwick Holmes with the Rosetta spacecraft, which has travelled more than 8 billion kilometres since he helped launch it in 2004.

But Mr Holmes, who retired from the agency soon after, has been unable to find a job since returning to Australia.

"It's extremely difficult to translate that into an Australian context, it's a little bit like being a ski instructor and trying to go back to Somalia," he said.

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"There's an incredibly good opportunity for Australia here, for just $20 million a year, to become a co-operating member state of ESA, and we get launched right at the highest level of space engineering and aviation technology."

Australian benefits would include better accessibility to remote imaging of its expansive agriculture, mining and environmental interests, most effectively done from space, he said.

Mr Holmes said an agreement, which would make Australia only the second non-European co-operating member after Canada, would match the Turnbull government's public promotion of an innovation and ideas boom. It would also deliver a 100 per cent guaranteed return in local contracts under the ESA constitution.

Independent economic assessments found Canada received a $3.50 return for each $1 invested, he said.

Mr Holmes, who spent five years across primary and secondary school in Canberra, was part of team of 40 engineers building the $1.2 billion Rosetta probe and Philae lander, and was the spacecraft support team leader who gave the final "Go-for-Launch" from the site in French Guiana where the probe blasted off in 2004.

He said its success in gathering organic molecules from comet P-67, described by the ESA so far as "exotic carbon chemistry", had surprised even him.

"The Philae worked – even though we had a very bad landing, 85 per cent of our surface science performed correctly," he said.

"What it confirms is that comets are the source of exotic carbon chemistry and the water ice that we believe formed the oceans on earth and helped kick-start the evolution of life."

Philae was now dead, last communicating in July, and the Rosetta would complete its mission in September, when it would itself land on the comet, never to leave.

A Department of Industry, Innovation and Science spokesman said Australia already held agreements with the European Space Agency to collaborate on space science and technology, consistent with a focus on space applications and using space-derived information.

Tickets can still be bought for Mr Holmes' Academy of Science lecture at The Shine Dome on Wednesday from 5.30pm.

Reporter at The Canberra Times

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