Philae the comet lander has collected and sent back a bunch of never-before seen data and pictures, and thus completed its main mission. Batteries depleted, it has now gone into hibernation mode after spending almost 57 hours on the comet that will also become its final home.
The first comet-landing to date generated a lot of buzz and excitement last week, and the team is calling it a huge success, as well as “a game-changer in cometary science.”
However, big-ticket space missions like this one, even when they are remarkably successful, leave a lot of people wondering about the usefulness of the endeavour. Could we be spending our time, efforts, and money on something more practical? Why should we care what comets are made of? How does this impact my life? Why are my taxes going towards this?1
The difference between a science project that’s aimed at developing a new pancreatic cancer drug and one that aims to understand the origin of the Solar System is found in the term ‘blue skies research’.2 This type of research is driven by curiosity about the unknown, a desire to explore and discover, as well as find answers to some of the most fundamental questions about our life and the universe.
Of course, a proposition like this is a tough sell to those people who are motivated by different things in life than curiosity and a love of science. But it’s crucial to remember that blue skies research is also the kind of science that brings us unexpected discoveries and inventions that may very well change the world as we know it.
I’m not just waxing poetic here, either. The very invention you are using to read this blog article is a wonderful example of this potential for impact. CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, was established to research the fundamental structure of the universe. Today they use “the world’s largest and most complex scientific instruments to study the basic constituents of matter.” But long before they made waves with the Higgs boson detection in 2012, CERN also gave us the World Wide Web.
When it comes to the Rosetta mission, Scienceogram UK put it quite well:
Like a lot of blue-skies science, it’s very hard to put a value on the mission. First, there are the immediate spin-offs like engineering know-how; then, the knowledge accrued, which could inform our understanding of our cosmic origins, amongst other things; and finally, the inspirational value of this audacious feat in which we can all share, including the next generation of scientists.
People have different priorities, and taxpayers are rarely fully satisfied with how their money is spent. For example, I would like it if none of the money withheld from my income went into funding military operations overseas, or other government policies I may find questionable.
But if we can spend billions of dollars on tanks, guns, sports teams, movies, and paintings, then why not also get out there in space and explore? To me that’s €3.50 well spent.