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The Guardian view on the Rosetta space mission

The research we need to solve global problems must be begun a generation or more ahead


ESA's Roger Bonnet with a model of the Rosetta spacecraft, 1 Ju
Far-sighted: The ESA's director of science Roger Bonnet with a model of the Rosetta spacecraft, 1 July 1999. Photograph: Matthew Fearn/PA
Right now, a European spacecraft is circling a dark, icy object called comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko after a 10-year, 6bn-kilometre journey. The encounter between Rosetta and the comet, and the little lander Philae on the comet’s surface, happened because, in 1980, in the infancy of the European Space Agency, scientists met in Strasbourg to work out what such an agency might do. One recommendation was a landing on Titan, one of the moons of Saturn. Another was a comet rendezvous and an asteroid flyby. The Europeans partnered with Nasa to reach Saturn and in 2005 to drop a European lander called Huygensthrough Titan’s hydrocarbon clouds.
The comet mission took a little longer. That too, was originally to be a partnership with the Americans. But in 1993 the ESA decided do it alone. Nobody who endorsed the project could be accused of doing so for short-term gain: some of its begetters had no hope of living to see it happen. It happened because people were prepared to think decades ahead and at distances of 673m kilometres, because that is where the spacecraft – which flew by two asteroids on its journey – made its rendezvous with the comet.
Rosetta was designed to answer questions framed in the 80s, built with engineering experience gained in the 90s and fitted with technology perfected around the millennium: it is a testament to old technology. It is also a testament to cooperation. The ESA and eight separate nations backed the venture, and it involved more than 50 contractors from 14 European countries and the US. It is a triumph for the policy of open borders: scientists from Newcastle or Milton Keynes could go to Darmstadt in Germany or Frascati in Italy and form partnerships with colleagues from Max-Planck institutes or from the great French research universities. But most of all, it is a tribute to the long view, the willingness to embark on something that would deliver rewards to scientists not even born when it was first proposed.
Nor is Rosetta an isolated example: the link between fossil fuel emissions and global warming became clear because of a set of meticulous daily measurements of carbon dioxide begun by one scientist in Hawaii in 1958: the Keeling curve traced the increasingly steep concentrations of the greenhouse gas and triggered the first real alarms about climate change. Research into the planet and its climate is now based on international partnerships, and these too benefit from the long view.
The big problems faced by humanity – population growth, climate change, rising sea levels, precarious energy supplies, threats to food security, and biodiversity loss – are truly international, and won’t be solved in any one person’s lifetime. The ESA was launched in 1975 in a very different Europe, when Franco still controlled Spain, and a military junta had just given up power in Greece. At a time when politicians seem to want to close borders, constrain the movement of people and ideas, and encourage short-term commercial gain, the agency is a reminder of the power of cooperation, and Rosetta is a distant beacon for open borders and the long view.

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