Paris, 25 Jun 2004
The Cassini-Huygens mission, which is arriving in orbit around Saturn, has taken more than six-and-a-half years to reach its destination, and scientists have been working on its instruments since the late eighties. This week EuroNews looks at these multi-generational missions.
When ESA's comet chaser started its journey last March, all its scientific investigators knew they would have to wait 10 years before Rosetta obtained its first data. Space science exploration often requires a long-term view and much patience. Scientists have to ensure the continuity of their research by encouraging younger colleagues.
EuroNews visited one of the many research centres participating in such long-term ESA missions - the Open University's Planetary and Space Sciences Research Institute, at Milton Keynes near London - and talked with three well-known scientists.
Tony McDonnell, aged 65 , is an authority on cosmic dust. One of his instruments was on the Giotto probe when it flew past comet Halley in March 1986. A younger member of that Giotto team was John Zarnecki, 54 , who today is now waiting for data from ESA's Huygens mission and from Rosetta. Zarnecki has in turn prepared other colleagues, including 38 year-old Neil McBride, to continue this long-term research.
"We are not just scientists, but also involved in education, in the process of passing on information," explains Tony McDonnell. "Even research students have to get used to the fact that experiments they design will produce data for others."
Neil McBride confirms this. "I arrived when Giotto flew past its second comet in 1992. I was working then with an experiment that had been conceived 15 years earlier. One must have a long-term view."
"When I started working on Rosetta, I realised that there was a strong possibility that I wouldn't benefit personally from the fruits of my work," says Zarnecki. "I must say that I at first found this difficult to come to terms with. But when one reaches a certain age, or a certain maturity, you come to accept that it's for future generations."
The multi-generational aspect of such missions is accentuated by the phenomenal quantities of data that are collected. Investigators with instruments on the Cassini-Huygens mission recognise that information to be sent back on Saturn and its largest moon Titan will keep scientists occupied for ten, perhaps even twenty years… whilst they are still learning things from the data obtained by the Voyager probes which just flew past the ringed planet in the early 80s.
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Item source: http:///www.esa.int/export/esaCP/SEMW1P3VQUD_index_0.html