Opinion: Europe is in comet fever | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 12.11.2014
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Science

Opinion: Europe is in comet fever

No space mission since the moon landing has captured people's imaginations quite like Rosetta. It's about realizing a vision and yearning for unknown worlds, says DW's space expert Cornelia Borrmann.

The challenges facing the Rosetta mission were monumental. Let's not forget that right at the beginning all those involved had to make the impossible possible. If they hadn't, there wouldn't have been a Rosetta mission at all.

The launch had to be postponed by a year because of technical problems with the launch vehicle, meaning that the original target comet was no longer reachable. Researchers and engineers had a very short space of time in which to search for an alternative. They managed to find a new target comet - saving the mission.

Perhaps it is this inspirational energy born of dedication to a vision that moves us. Perhaps because we hardly ever experience it any more in our ordinary working lives? The identification with a great, meaningful cause, a task, a common goal that connects and carries us all?

Deutsche Welle DW Cornelia Borrmann

DW's Cornelia Borrmann

Inexhaustible spirit of research

This exceptional energy - the true spirit of research - became palpable again when Rosetta was brought out of her two-and-a-half year hibernation in January 2014. People in the satellite control center were cheering and hugging each other in delight, showing that such moments of happiness don't only occur on the football field.

But it's also the really big questions that fascinate us. The Rosetta mission is about nothing less than the roots of our existence, the source of all life. The technical effort deployed to clarify these questions is absolutely justified by the philosophical dimension.

The expertise of the flight engineers in the European Satellite Control Center – ESOC – in Darmstadt is staggeringly impressive. They have mastered complex maneuvers that require total precision. Like the flights past the Earth and Mars: so-called "swing-by" maneuvers that provided the Rosetta space probe with the necessary velocity for the over six billion kilometer journey to its cosmic rendezvous with "Chury." And now the landing… Entirely uncharted waters!

No question - these people are the very best. One tiny mistake could result in the failure of the entire mission. Space travel has demonstrated this on numerous occasions. "Failure is not an option" - the saying of Apollo 13 flight director Gene Krantz still holds true.

Breathtaking images

During her ten-year journey Rosetta has taken numerous breathtaking photos – spectacular selfies, pictures of Earth, Mars, asteroids. And of course of the comet "Chury" - pictures that show exotic landscapes full with details that inspire us with wonder.

Thanks to these pictures, Chury's unattainable world seems to be within our grasp. It gives rise to a yearning for great adventure and the exploration of unknown worlds. Christopher Columbus was still able to experience this - but us? Then we find out that it smells very Earthy in this far-off world - horse dung and rotten eggs. We weren't expecting that, and once again we find ourselves marveling at nature, and looking forward to all the other adventures we'll be experiencing with the robotic lander Philae.

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