In the fields of human achievement, landing a washing machine sized probe onto a speeding comet millions of kilometres from earth must rank up there with man’s first steps on the moon.
The stunning rendezvous occurred late last year when the Rosetta orbiter touched down on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko half a billion kilometres from earth – and Australia played its part.
Dr Paolo Ferri, head of mission operations for the European Space Agency, said aspects of this mission had never been encountered before and were extremely challenging.
“What I found most difficult of this mission was the rendezvous and flying around the comet. It has very little to do with normal space flight,” he said.
Dr Ferri, in Australia to deliver a presentation on the Rosetta mission, said ESA operated the small Gnangara antenna outside Perth which tracked initial progress of Rosetta following launch from French Guyana, South America, in 2004.
Subsequently the larger deep space tracking station at New Norcia, north of Perth, tracked Rosetta to the comet.
Rosetta’s probe Philae landed on the comet surface but failed to anchor properly.
It now lies on an angle in the shadow of a cliff or crater wall, its battery depleted. Scientists hope to revive Philae next month as the comet approaches the sun and extra light falls on its solar panels.
The mission produced the first images from the surface of a comet plus a huge amount of scientific data on comet composition.
The US journal Science billed this as the top scientific achievement for 2014.
Australia is a significant user of space services, launching satellites through both ESA and NASA.
But once Australia hosted space facilities and even launched a satellite in 1967, the third nation on earth to launch a satellite from its own territory.
Now the federal government has commissioned another report into the future of Australia’s space industry.
That will be completed by the end of October, assessing what Australia is doing in terms of civil space-related technology.
Dr Ferri said the future of space was in international co-operation and an increasing role could only be good for Australia.
“Globally I think it makes a lot of sense not to replicate capabilities everywhere,” he said.
“Co-operating in space is a vehicle for many things which are not strictly related to space – science, technology, development, outreach and education. – it’s inspirational.”