Belfast Telegraph

Historic Rosetta spacecraft comet mission: Another small step for mankind

Editor's Viewpoint

Sometimes it seems that the world is going to hell in a handcart. The headlines are dominated by bad news - tragic deaths on our roads, howling gales and torrential rain heading our way, wars causing untold deaths and misery in the Middle East and Ukraine and big banks being fined for trying to manipulate foreign exchange rates.

But then comes a story that restores our faith in mankind. The landing of a spacecraft on a comet 311 million miles from earth after a 10-year voyage is a mind-boggling achievement. While Yuri Gagarin's mould-breaking flight into space or Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon will always remain the glamorous milestones in space exploration, they were the equivalent of a Sunday drive to the garden centre compared to yesterday's event.

Even finding a needle in a haystack would be easy compared to the Rosetta mission. Its journey was so immense that it take 28 minutes for a radio signal to reach the craft and the spacecraft had to slingshot around Earth three times and Mars once to gain enough momentum to keep up with its target comet.

What makes the whole event more interesting from our point of view is that scientists and graduates from Queen's University in Belfast have been centrally involved in it. Indeed the Queen's scientists were studying the comet even before it was chosen as the landing site for this frontier-breaking exploration.

Their involvement in the event is a tremendous endorsement of the quality of teaching and research being undertaken at the university. Given the length of time since the spacecraft was launched, the normally staid scientists can be forgiven their almost schoolboyish enthusiasm when the landing module finally touched down on the comet.

Some cynics may decry the cost of space exploration and wonder at its value, given the many other worthy causes which exist on Earth. But ever since mankind developed any critical faculties, humans have wondered how the universe came to be formed and how they found their own place in it.

This comet may hold some of the answers and the information being sent back from the landing module will be closely scanned throughout the scientific world.

Essentially it could reveal part of the DNA of the universe and, if it does, Northern Ireland can proudly say that people from here played their part in the discovery.

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