Looking up at the night sky, it would be impossible to see the spacecraft, named Philae, which just made history on November 12, 2014 by landing on the surface of Comet 67P. Physically, Philae is tiny. Only one meter tall, Philae clings to Comet 67P that is orbiting far away from the Earth. Both Comet 67P and Philae are microscopically insignificant compared to the size of the visible universe.
And yet, the European Space Program spent around 1.7 billion U.S. dollars and ten years to get Philae launched into space and grounded on this comet.
So why should you care? Why does it matter?
You might care just because you think science and space are cool (they are!). But you also might care about your cell phone, your laptop, your tablet, and your camera (GoPro, anyone?). All of these devices are made of the Earth’s limited supply of rare earth minerals, which are expensive to mine and cause damage to the environment. The toxins released by mining rare earth minerals surge into the groundwater and pollute entire water supplies. Mining rare minerals also generates radioactive waste, which is often not disposed of properly. Landing Philae on a comet opens up the possibility of eventually mining rare earth metals from space without further damaging our biosphere.
Furthermore, space exploration lends itself to advances in math, science and technology. When we first established our goal of landing a man on the moon, we did not have the technology to make that happen. But we set out to develop the necessary technology, and now solar panels, computer microchips, cordless electronics, invisible dental braces and satellite televisions are a part of our everyday lives. Going beyond the moon means that there are new things to learn, new ways of viewing the world in which we live, and a whole different part of the universe to explore.
And last but not least, you may have heard the phrase, “We are made of stardust.” In a strange twist of events, that phrase is more or less true. As Neil deGrasse Tyson says, the most astounding fact is not that we are in the universe, but that “the universe is in us.” Elements heavier than hydrogen—like carbon, nitrogen and oxygen—are created by the enormously high-pressure conditions inside of stars. When stars die, they explode and the newly created elements get scattered. Comets may have brought water and organic compounds to Earth, making life on Earth possible.
Just as we cannot look up at the sky and see Philae sitting on the comet, we cannot always anticipate what new knowledge we will gain from undertaking new challenges. However, the science that is generated in getting something the size of a refrigerator to land on a piece of rock moving through space at 135,000 kilometers per hour will change our lives, either by informing us of the origins of life on Earth or letting us stream our favorite TV show.
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