What price do you put on scientific discovery? From the way Twitter lit up last week when the Philae spacecraft touched down on Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko — it was a top-trending topic for a while — it appears there’s a lot of discussion going on about the Rosetta mission and its value to humanity.
A recent infographic (which you can see below) points out that the Rosetta mission, which included the now-hibernating Philae lander, cost as much as about four Airbus 380 jetliners. Is US$1.75 billion (€1.4 billion) a bargain for letting us explore further into the universe, or could the money have been better-served elsewhere?
This is a question often brought up about the value of space exploration, or what is called “blue-sky” research in general. The first developers of lasers, for example, could not have predicted how consumers would use them millions of times over to watch DVDs and Blu-Rays. Or in a more practical use, how medical lasers are used today for surgeries.
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“Like a lot of blue-skies science, it’s very hard to put a value on the mission,” wrote Scienceogram.org, the organization that produced the infographic. “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.”
To put the value of the Rosetta mission in more everyday terms, Scienceogram points out that the comet landing cost (per European citizen and per year between 1996 and 2015) was less than half the ticket price for Interstellar. That said, it appears that figure does not take into account inflation, so the actual cost per year may be higher.
The Rosetta spacecraft is still working well and is expected to observe its target comet through 2015. The Philae lander did perform the incredible feat of landing on 67P on Wednesday, but it ended up in a shadowy spot that prevented it from gathering sunlight to stay awake. The lander is now in hibernation, perhaps permanently, but scientists have reams of data from the lander mission to pore over.
It’s been said that Rosetta, in following 67P as it gets closer to the Sun, will teach us more about cometary behavior and the origins of our Solar System. Is the mission and its social-media-sensation pictures worth the price? Let us know in the comments. More information on the infographic (and the spreadsheet of data) are available here.