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Europe's Space Odyssey Shows What EU Cooperation Can Achieve

13/11/2014 17:38 GMT | Updated 13/01/2015 10:59 GMT

Will this week's comet landing triumph shift people's perceptions of Europe away from the tired clichés of bent bananas, faceless bureaucrats and benefit-thirsty migrants?

The coverage of the Rosetta mission has tended to focus on the astonishing complexity of the mission, and rightly so. It took ten years of research and preparations for the European Space Agency to launch the Rosetta satellite in 2004. It has taken this unmanned craft a further 10 years, and four billion miles, to reach the comet and send a lander, a little fellow the size of a fridge going by the name of Philae, successfully down on what is an irregularly-shaped, 2.5mile-long rock travelling at a speed of 40,000mph, after a couple of awkward bounces.

What all the superlatives used about this achievement don't make clear is just how improbable if not impossible this mission would have been without the existence of a EU-funded European Space coordinating the work and sharing research with scientists in several countries operating in different languages.

To deal with the budget first of all, ESA received £3.38billion in 2013, paid for in large part by the EU and its member states, with smaller contributions coming from Canada, Switzerland, Norway, and ESA candidate states. The budget for the Rosetta project was £1.1billion.

Not only is the money shared but so too the work - the ESA has centres all around the continent serving different purposes: astronauts are trained in Cologne; Mission Control is in Darmstadt; Research and Technology is based in Noordwijk; Earth Observations in Frascati, and Space Astronomy in Villanueva de la Cañada. All of these collective resources combine to create a co-operative organisation which is forward-looking, ambitious, and fundamentally European.

Researchers from Open University's Centre for Physical and Environmental Sciences worked with the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire to develop Ptolemy, an instrument which will make in situ isotopic measurements, since you ask - one of the many tools the Philae lander will use to analyse the comet. And OU researchers also had a hand in the development of MUPUS (Multi-Purpose Sensors for Surface and Subsurface Science) which was led by a consortium of European scientists from Münster, Berlin, Warsaw, and Graz.

None of the nations involved could have hoped to achieve this goal single-handedly. None would even have attempted it. None of the international experts who came together would ever had a chance to be part of something this complex, enriching, fascinating and, yes, just plain exciting, without the European Space Agency. It is through the ESA that the UK Space agency gets a place at the table, or on the spacecraft, through the instruments developed by UK scientists, funded by taxpayers in Bristol, Boulogne and Berlin.

It's cost us 10 years, millions of pounds and man-hours but the result of this amazing feat of European co-operation, fundraising, co-ordination and joint research is truly priceless.