04 Dec 2014   |   News

How to identify bed bugs and other surprising dividends from the Rosetta mission

Off-shoots of technology used in the recent Rosetta mission are coming back down to Earth to help detect ulcers and cancer and make submarines safer

New science knowledge was a big winner in the wake of the decade-long Rosetta mission, in which the European Space Agency (ESA) successfully landed a probe on a speeding comet. A big loser was bed bugs.

Geraint (Taff) Morgan, a UK chemist turned comet-catcher who between 1995 and 2001 co-designed the technology used by the Philae lander to analyse gases on the comet 69P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, is now using similar processes to detect bed bugs in hotel bedrooms. “It’s the same ‘scratch and sniff’ philosophy,” said Morgan, who co-founded a company called Insect Research Systems last summer.

While a pest control system might be the most unlikely outcome of a probe landing on a comet, it is not the only new venture spawned by Rosetta.

The same “circularity of methodology”, as Morgan puts it, is being re-applied elsewhere, leading to new services and products that are paying their way back on terra firma.

Similar processes are guiding Oxford Micro Medical, stationed in the ESA’ Harwell incubation site in the UK. Morgan joined mid-2013 and used a variant of the same Rosetta technology, originally called the Ptolemy gas analyser, to develop a breath test for detecting stomach ulcers and a stomach infection linked to cancer.

Meanwhile, the UK Navy is applying the same advances, using the technology to sniff out harmful gases on board its fleet of nuclear-powered submarines. This is a breakthrough, Morgan said, “that breaks the monopoly of US expertise in this area.”

The products and services flowing from Rosetta join a list of everyday items previously spun-out from space missions. Light-weight materials for cars, dust collectors for vacuum cleaners, cooling suits worn by Formula 1 race teams, insulin pump wristwatches for diabetics – these and scores of other everyday technologies were advanced by testing in space, and by funding from ESA over the years.

Space for sale  

While the €1.4 billion of public money pumped into Rosetta makes many baulk, spin-off success stories are one return on investment, said Lluc Diaz, one of the ESA’s technology transfer officers.

“Rosetta is a scientific activity; primarily a knowledge generator. But we want to show society it has more impact beyond science,” he said.

It is very difficult to predict when and how basic knowledge will result in practical benefits. But having people like Diaz around helps. If there had not been anyone pressing particle physicists to share data, there would be no Internet today.

For Morgan, “Rosetta assembled a brilliant multi-disciplinary team who understood how to assess problems. Once you have this collective together, you can do anything back on the ground.”

A look at the ESA’s greatest hits is further proof of that. The science of spacecraft docking has been applied to regulate the speed and position of cars on an assembly line. Sensors that calculate the re-entry angle of spacecraft are used by the German railway company Deutsche Bahn to check brakes. Cameras mounted on vehicles for planetary exploration today create 3D videos for medical purposes.

Up-front costs also deserve some context. On his website Scienceogram, physicist Andrew Steele, calculates that Rosetta cost €3.50 per person from 1996-2015. This works out at €0.20 per person per year. For comparison, that the cost of a cinema trip to see the new scifi movie works out at an average price of €8.50 per person.

Space tech transfer

From the laboratory or launch pad to the marketplace, good ideas usually first take a trip through one of the eleven ESA incubators dotted around Europe. These Business Incubation Centres (BICs) support between 80 and 90 start-ups a year.  

The support that comes from Diaz and his colleagues provides a vital push to the marketplace, said Morgan. “For an academic, a shift to the commercial world is daunting. ESA’s business incubation service was very supportive and very good at hand-holding.”

Rosetta background

ESA’s successful landing on a comet some 510 million kilometres from Earth was considered a huge achievement. The probe took a decade to arrive at its target.

Despite a hairy landing, the ESA’s probe, the Philae Lander, was able to take more than sixty hours of science data from the surface before its batteries ran down and the probe put itself into hibernation on 15 November.

As the comet moves closer to the sun, scientists are hoping it will eventually get sufficiently charged, wake up, and carry on its work.

Never miss an update from Science|Business:   Newsletter sign-up