This weekend I got to see something that no man has ever seen before. Granted, I shared the experience with potentially several million people, but it was a moving event nonetheless. So what was this ground breaking, mind shattering event that I am speaking of? None other than the European Space Agency’s Rosetta flyby, marking the largest asteroid we’ve ever visited with a probe of any kind. At a distance of over 400,000 kilometers from Earth, the Rosetta spacecraft made a pre-planned and controlled swing around the asteroid, 21 Lutetia, taking hundreds of high-resolution pictures and collecting thousands of data point measurements from other on-board equipment.
Of course, the Rosetta project’s main mission wasn’t to take snapshots of 21 Lutetia, nor the other dozens of observational data that were collected. Rather, the main mission of Rosetta won’t even begin until 2014, when the craft is scheduled to intercept the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. After its weekend flyby, the Rosetta spacecraft was put into hibernation mode, only to wake up in the spring of 2014. Until then, all of its dwindling solar energy and on-board systems must be conserved for navigation, not communication. Once it is awakened from its slumber, the craft will begin communicating again with its creators here on mother earth. After maneuvering into position over the summer months, it will intercept the comet in the fall, go into orbit around the comet, and send a lander to the surface to collect data. This may sound like an extremely ambition mission – and it is! It’s also costing the European taxpayers a cool billion Euros, which has some people concerned. Is this all for a good cause, or just a bunch of scientists sitting around fulfilling their boyhood fantasies?
In order to really discuss this, the overall picture of space exploration should be taken into account. What exactly has the exploration of space given to humankind over the past 60 years? Here are just a few of the technological advances that are directly or indirectly related to developments and innovation derived from space exploration:
- NASA imaging satellites keep track of weather patterns, natural disasters, fires, and almost anything else taking place on the ground.
- A NASA grant led Doug Englebart to develop what we know today as the computer mouse, while he was working at the Stanford Research Institute.
- Do you like GPS? How about your cable or satellite TV? Well, the first communication satellites were put up by the Soviet Union and US during the space race.
- NASA engineer Adam Kissiah took his electronic engineering knowledge and went on to develop the cochlear implant, giving hearing many who have lost or never had it.
- Dr. Rafat Ansari was working on suspension experiments when he realized his work could be used to diagnose cataracts, and potentially, diabetes and Alzheimer’s.
- The Lifeshears (or Jaws of Life) used by rescue workers to recover accident victims from a wrecked vehicle runs on the same power supply as that of the NASA solid rocket booster separation device.
- Don’t like the grooved highways in certain areas? Well, they were developed by NASA for runways, to channel flowing water off of the surface, providing greater tire traction. They are credited with an 85% reduction in highway accidents.
There are many more innovations which we could credit to the exploration of space. The bottom line is this: we have all benefited from the exploration of space, even if we don’t see it in our day to day lives. While the Rosetta project may not be out to solve all of the problems of our planet, it can give scientists a better understanding of comets, where they came from, what they are made of, and how we could possibly, one day, avoid a deadly collision. Personally I’m disappointed we shelved the moon program. I would love to see a moon base or a base on Mars established in my lifetime. The creation and endurance of the International Space Station has given those of us growing up during the cold war and the space race hope, hope that mankind can work together for the common good of all. It is the only foreseeable way that our planet can avoid the next global extinction – one I fear will be caused by ourselves. That’s my two cents’ worth, take it or leave it. In the meantime, enjoy the videos below of the Rosetta mission taking off, and the recent flyby from this weekend.
LUTETIA FLYBY PART ONE:
LUTETIA FLYBY PART TWO: