Scienceogram UK

Making sense of science spending

How much does it cost to land on a comet?

Today, the space probe Rosetta’s lander Philae made spaceflight history by touching down on the surface of a comet. We’ve produced an infographic making sense of the cost of the project. Please share it!

We’ve also started making translations of the infographic (it’s in nine languages so far!), so please share them in your local language if you like!

Cost of Rosetta: How much does it cost to land on a comet? Scienceogram infographic

So what do we get for our €1.4bn? Rosetta is both an astounding feat of engineering (catapulting a tonne of spacecraft across billions of kilometres of space and ending up in orbit around a comet just 4 km across) and an extraordinary opportunity for science (allowing us to examine the surface of a lump of rock and ice which dates from when the Solar System formed).

Like a lot of blue-skies science, it’s very hard to put a value on the mission. 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.

Whilst those things are hard to price precisely, in common with other blue-skies scientific projects, Rosetta is cheap. At €1.4bn, developing, building, launching and learning from the mission will cost about the same as 4.2 Airbus A380s—pretty impressive when you consider that it’s an entirely bespoke robotic spacecraft, not a production airliner. On a more everyday scale, it’s cost European citizens somewhere around twenty Euro cents per person per year since the project began in 1996.

Rosetta has already sent us some stunning images of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko and today’s landing has provided us with our first close-up glimpse of the chaotic surface of this dirty snowball (as well as other valuable scientific data about the comet’s composition). If you’re a sci-fi fan, then, you might consider the mission to have been worth its price tag just for the pictures. The total cost for the Rosetta mission is about €3.50 per person in Europe; based on the average cinema ticket price in the UK (€8.50), it has cost less than half of what it will cost for you to go to see Interstellar.

So huge congratulations to the team at ESA for landing Philae on the comet’s surface! It’s not often you can make history for half the price of a cinema ticket.

All the data we used in this infographic are available in a Google Spreadsheet.

UPDATE: In light of the comment below we’ve slightly updated the graphic to include the non-EU members of the European Space Agency. There is a full explanation below, and you can see version 1.0 of the graphic, for reference.

UPDATE: The text of the article has been changed to reflect that the attempt was successful!

25 Comments

  1. James Fressineau

    Dear sirs,
    In this infography, you mentioned a cost by person within EU, but didn’t mentioned the effective cost per person for all of the participating countries, which are not exactly the same as EU.
    You should correct your data, in order to be fair with the people of these countries.
    Many thanks
    Best regards,
    James

  2. Scienceogram

    Thanks for your comment! That’s a genuine oversight on our part, so thanks for pointing it out. Do you know if the Rosetta participants are the same as the ESA Member States? If so, it makes calculating an exact per person figure very complicated, since it includes EU states, non-EU states, and a contribution from the EU as a bloc member too!

    In reality this probably means that the number won’t change very much (and if anything will go down slightly), but we’ll nonetheless try to come up with a way to incorporate the other members’ contributions.

  3. Scienceogram

    We’ve updated the graphic to include the non-EU members of the European Space Agency (ESA), and changed the text slightly to reflect its broader membership. Canada is the only contributing member not shown on our image, but it is an associate member which contributes 0.008% of its government budget to ESA (compared to Germany’s 0.068% or Italy’s 0.053%).

    The per capita cost of €3.50 has remained the same on the basis that it’s incredibly hard to calculate a fairer one given the complexity of ESA membership! Some member states joined ESA after the start of the Rosetta mission, including the EU as a bloc member, and there have also been changes to EU membership during this period. Consequently, we’ve stuck with our approximate population of 400 million throughout the period 1996–2015, meaning our figure is probably a slight underestimate.

    Please let us know if you have any comments on this!

  4. Joyce Beck

    Why compare it to a military/defence cost? The UK banks bailout cost £850 billion. The HS2 rail link is budgeted at £50 billion.

  5. Harry

    What if we had build a lot of solarfarms or other green energy projects? But that’s not so interesting when you are mainly focussen on prestige.

  6. Andy Price

    It’s great to see leaps of science being conducted through peaceful means rather than as an offshoot of war. I’m a proud European today due to our achievement with Rosetta. The cost, which it would look great in my personal bank account, is tiny compared to many other mission. ESA do seem to do a lot with comparability little. Let’s hope little Philae gets more sunlight with the help of smart ESA engineers and analysts, else we’ll have to send a rescue mission – prep Bruce Willis! :-)

  7. Peter Tarrant

    The cost? We can all play with numbers! Politicians are doing this all the time. Let’s cut to the chase. 1.4 billion euros. What could have been done with this money to help the sick and hungry on earth?
    Employment? Jobs for the boys at the tax payers expense.
    I remain very much unconvinced that this was the best use of so much money.

  8. Michael

    You left out Malta :( We’re a tiny set of dots below Sicily, but we’ve been part of the EU since 2004.

    Not sure if we don’t qualify as having contributed or you’re just using an outdated graphic. Either way, pretty cool statistic!

  9. scott kirk

    Let’s get our own planet in order before we go elsewhere. Poor, starvation, wars all over the planet, corruption and poverty. 8 we discovered other planets we could live we would only bring our baggage with us.
    Total waste of money…

  10. Thomas

    Thanks for this article and calculation! It’s a really interesting cost per person and inspires further discussion. I hope you don’t mind but I used your figures in a discussion I was writing. I sourced you and linked it back here as well! Thanks a lot.

  11. Robin Holland

    In the great scheme of things, 1.4 billion Euros is not even small change. Especially when it has been spent over 20 years. To the people who say that this money would have been better spent in other ways, citing health, education, poverty etc., etc., I would suggest they might, more profitably, question the truly fantastic sums that are spent each year on the military worldwide. In 2013 expenditure was estimated at 1 747 billion dollars, or approximately 1 395 billion Euros. One thousand three hundred and ninety five BILLION Euros. Per year.
    Rosetta is a monumental achievement and nobody can predict, with accuracy, what terrestrial benefits might accrue. However, on past evidence, benefits there shall be, both in ‘pure’ science and ‘practical’ applications.
    What next for ESA? I hope it is just as exciting!

  12. Mick

    At the top of the list as to what we think caused the extinction of the dinosaurs is an impact on the Earth of a Comet or Asteroid. Other large impacts can be found as evidence in the rocks of the Earth. Quoting from the scifi film ‘Armageddon’ this could happen again! A much smaller lump of rock could wipe out a whole city.
    Rosetta and Philae is a first huge step in being able to intercept such a object, understand it’s composition and what we might do abouthe one that happened to be on collision course in the future.
    Money well spent I say.

  13. David

    This is as monumental a success as the moon landing. The amount of technological and scientific knowledge gained from such a well designed mission will benefit all mankind for years to come. You can not put a value on this amazing success. There will always be short sided people who will criticize the cost of anything. I congratulate all of you for a wonderful mission. Your dedication and hard work is inspirational. I look forward to the next 10 years of science that will spring from the data you’ve collect.

  14. Hugh Maginnis

    I would appreciate knowing if the United States contributed financial resources or if U.S. scientists were a part of the Rosetta initiative. Since U.S. taxpayers finance part or the majority of so many international endeavors (the UN, NATO), it would be refreshing to see that other countries are truly footing all of
    the bill on this project.

  15. Doug Lough

    If you spread 1.4bl Euro out over a long enough period of time of course it seems like a small amount. It’s not. It is still a large amount of money for a lander that couldn’t even land in the sun. Maybe they should have grabbed a kid off of the street and duct taped his smart phone to it, and let him guide it in with his “find my phone app”

  16. James Morton

    I doubt very much wether global issue can be solved in a single lifetime, but this tiny cost will inspire generations to come and I am sure will prove to be of great scientific significance. For the first time in the history of humanity and space exploration, we have landed a craft on a comet. How can one not instantly feel the intense sense of achievement by the hands of us fascinating creatures. Well done homo sapiens, you did well!

  17. Alex

    Some serious muppets on here, science and space exploration is paramount to the future development of our planet for our children, and the understanding of life on Earth. And this 1.4 Billion Euros some are fussing about compared to the 50+ billion Euros which is just the UK’s military budget for one single year in 2013 is money well spent!
    Big picture people, And this is the biggest spectacle of all!! Well done ESA

  18. David

    This mission is partly based on a faith-based assumption…that we came from comets. It might turn out there is no organic material after all. It was even noted that there was a lot less dust on the comet than expected, suggesting that even the assumed age of the comet is incorrect. I have mixed feelings about it, since we did land a man on the moon, but at the same time the money could have been used elsewhere, particularly since the lander is in operative after just a couple days of landing.

  19. emuLOAD

    It is very disheartening to read so many people who think the money could have been “better employed” in other ways. (cancer care, feeding the poor, creating jobs, etc. etc.)

    All of us “waste” an enormous amount of money on products or services which are non-essential, we could say that (end users) spending $7+ billion worldwide just on music could be used “better” than buying ringtones & mp3s.

    It’s all silly arguments. Yes, solving earth’s great problems is important, and things are being done (a lot of things!), but not because of that we should stop evolving as a species. Expanding our knowledge of the universe is one of the key investments in our future. Just as much, if not more (in the long run) than building a green energy farm today.

    Space exploration, and the technological development it brings is an essential constituent part of progress for humanity. It will pay dividends (it already has, hugely) and is, if anything, under- rather than over-funded.

  20. Robert Hardy

    Money is not really a very useful measure, just an accountancy exercise, most of it stays within the European economy, just flowing around, it is the amount of material used and the opportunity cost of the personnel involved that really should be counted. A trivial cost in material, a few thousand person years of highly skilled technician, engineer and scientist time, that’s more significant, these are people who could be improving energy efficiency, designing better sewage systems, etc, their time is of real value throughout the economy, however that may be self restoring, inducing perhaps a few thousand people extra to study those disciplines and pursue careers in them rather than some other subject and enhancing the skills of those who work on the project to be payed back later in their careers elsewhere in the economy.

  21. Richard Morin

    Thats a lot of money to look at a piece of rock.
    are you hoping to add a new square on th periodic table? I dont think so.What you see is what you get. Same stuff you would find here on earth.
    That leads nowhere but to more questions. There is no end to it…

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