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Over the summer a space probe called Rosetta began the final stage of a decade-long sprint across the solar system in hot pursuit of a comet. Having blasted off from French Guiana in the nose of an Ariane 5 rocket, the vessel yo-yoed around Earth before it harnessed the gravitational field of Mars as a sling-shot. Travelling at speeds of more than 50,000km/h, it delighted its designers by snapping photographs of the cratered skin of passing asteroids. In August came the grand finale: a rendezvous with its enigmatic celestial quarry.

Scientists had assumed the 4km-wide comet would be potato-shaped but as Rosetta hurtled nearer it turned out to resemble a monster-sized rubber duck. The probe pirouetted to within 10km of the coal-coloured rock and began to collect data from the dust and gasses streaming from its unstable core. Not bad, considering these gyrations took place about 400 million kilometres from Earth. By the time you read this, Rosetta should have achieved the even more spectacular feat of landing a smaller craft on the comet’s surface. Philae, a probe-within-a-probe, has three spindly legs that give it a mosquito-like aspect and a harpoon to anchor it to the comet’s crust for a piggy-back ride into eternity.

Rosetta has already been a triumph, delivering a trove of information to help unravel longstanding riddles about the solar system’s origins and, ultimately, life on Earth. The hard-won success created a new buzz in the corridors of the European Space Agency (ESA), the 20-country space-exploration club whose scientists dreamt up and executed Rosetta, and which celebrates its 40th birthday in 2015. ESA has a long tradition of co-operation with the US and Russia, dominant players in space since the Cold War. But after decades as a junior partner, Europe’s inter-planetary explorers are coming of age.

With China and India ramping up space missions, ESA is banking on a new generation of projects to secure Europe’s position in an increasingly global space race. Where once the moon was the prize, all eyes are now on Mars – the planet in the solar system that in some respects most closely resembles Earth. By the end of the decade, ESA plans to land a wheeled robot on the red planet as part of its ExoMars programme. The rover’s goal: to search for microscopic traces of life.

“The ExoMars mission is the first time ESA is putting a rover on a planet,” says Martin Azkarate, a pony-tailed space-automation and robotics engineer from Spain. “We’re losing our virginity.” Azkarate is part of the team at Estec, an ESA complex flanked by sand dunes at Noordwijk on the Dutch coast outside Amsterdam. The agency’s headquarters are in Paris but it has a range of mission-control and research facilities in Germany, Belgium, Italy, the UK and Spain. Estec is the organisation’s scientific centre of gravity; imagine a theme park designed by astrophysicists.

From the outside Estec looks about as enchanting as an industrial estate. But inside is an array of equipment designed to recreate the unforgiving conditions of space: vacuum chambers, radiation rooms, shaker tables, a giant centrifuge and lamps to simulate the sun’s glare. It is the kind of place where it pays to read signs carefully before opening a door.

The quietly thrumming equipment does not fully explain Estec’s appeal for its more than 2,500 personnel, however. Many countries have advanced research facilities but nowhere does such a diverse crowd of multilingual astronomers, scientists and engineers gather. monocle found something that management gurus often talk about but rarely succeed in nurturing: a perpetual sense of wide-eyed, pinch-yourself, “are we really doing this?” wonder at the day job.

“Every five years you have a revelation that makes you rethink how you understand physics or maths,” says Eloise Matheson, a British graduate trainee. “You really push the boundaries of what you know and what you’re capable of.”

The intensity of the intellectual ferment at ESA stems in part from the fact that researchers from different disciplines are united in the quest to answer that starry-eyed question: “Are we alone?” But the stakes in terms of cost, time and reputation involved foster a special exhilaration. In space it takes just one botched calculation to transform fist-pumping exaltation into head-in-hands despair. “If there’s a component failure the whole system may fail. If you’re very unlucky the whole spacecraft may fail,” says Dr Ali Zadeh, a Norwegian physicist whose team tests parts used in space. “Wild cards are something we don’t like.”

ESA was founded in 1975 by combining two precursor organisations to allow Europe to build the satellites, spacecraft and ground facilities that no single country could afford. Since then the agency has run a host of ambitious projects, including a 1986 fly-by of Halley’s Comet by the Giotto probe and an orbiter launched in 2005 to investigate the sulphuric atmosphere of  Venus. While ESA conducts a large amount of inhouse research, at least three quarters of its €4.1bn budget is spent on contracts with the European aerospace companies who manufacture the spacecraft. Scientists at Estec relish taking new deliveries but the straight-laced corporate culture that reigns at most multinationals tends to get left at the door.

Dr Fred Jansen, a Dutch astronomer who heads the Rosetta programme, embodies ESA’s science-first vibe. Weeks away from the culmination of the mission, a €1.25bn project on which many careers are riding, he could have been forgiven for indulging in a little power dressing. Instead he has come to work clad in polo shirt, jeans and sandals teamed with socks.

We speak at the “coffee corner,” a café in a restaurant area built of multi-coloured archways and pleasantly curved walls. Nearby stands a shoulder-high model of the comet Rosetta is orbiting, 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (named after the astronomers who discovered it). The replica exudes tendrils of dry ice. Jansen explains that the comet’s importance stems from its age: it was spat out more than four billion years ago as the solar system was formed. When it appeared in the 1950s it was as if a pristine piece of our planetary heritage had been removed from a deep freeze and conveniently floated within our reach. Scientists have long theorised that organic molecules brought to Earth by comets rich in carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and hydrogen may have seeded the planet with life. Data gathered by Rosetta as it tracks the comet for another year could help explain how that process may have worked.

“The Rosetta Stone led to the deciphering of hieroglyphs, something nobody understood,” says Jansen. “In the same way we hope that the Rosetta mission will help to decipher some of the secrets of the origin of life on Earth.”

While it has garnered the most attention, Rosetta is only the most mature of a range of evolving programmes. ESA is currently testing a new craft designed to give it a must-have capability for any space-faring power: the ability to send astronauts or equipment into orbit and bring them safely back to Earth. Known as the Intermediate Experimental  Vehicle or ixv, the vessel is shaped like a giant training shoe. Plans are also under way to send a probe to the little-explored and permanently roasting Mercury, the closest planet to the Sun. The mission likely to garner the most attention, however, is ExoMars. The US has landed four rovers on Mars – most recently Curiosity, a car-sized mobile laboratory that touched down in 2012 and is still beavering away on the pock-marked surface. Europe has not been so successful. In 2003 ESA placed its Mars Express probe into orbit around the planet bearing Beagle 2, a British-designed rover. The device was released from the orbiter but no further signal was received and it was declared lost.

ESA is hoping to redeem Europe’s Martian adventures with a disarmingly simple ploy: arming a new rover with a two-metre drill. The idea is to bore through the radiation-drenched surface layer to search the soil for amino acids, the organic compounds that form the building blocks of cells.

Engineers are testing protoypes at Estec’s planetary robotics laboratory, otherwise known as the “Mars Yard”: a sandpit filled with red dust and rocks. Researchers must don wellington boots before stepping onto the mock Martian surface, where they can put an array of rovers through their paces using Xbox-style consoles or a formidable-looking “Thrustmaster” joystick.

Estec is clearly a geek’s paradise and, what’s more, its funding levels have weathered the economic crisis in the eurozone, as governments have learned to appreciate spin-off benefits from space programmes in terms of innovation and jobs. ESA announced last month that material used in spacesuits has been adapted for a range of heat-resistant underwear – dubbed “Thunderwear” – for Swedish steelworkers. But the commercial rewards are likely to be significantly bigger from research into a new breed of electric spacecraft engine.

Jose Gonzalez del Amo, a Spanish researcher in charge of Estec’s electric-propulsion section, explains the technology could save tens of millions of euros on a telecommunications satellite launch – sums that governments cannot afford to ignore. “We knew we were sexy,” he says. “Now people recognise it.”

Elsewhere in Estec, researchers are experimenting with a real version of that staple of any self-respecting science-fiction film: a robotic exo-skeleton. The suit is designed to allow the wearer to remotely operate a robot that would mimic movements with human-like dexterity. The technology could be used to explore Mars by proxy or clear the Earth’s hazardous halo of space-junk but it has applications on Earth itself, too: by fixing nuclear reactors or damaged oil wells.

While many projects will never leave the drawing board, missions such as Rosetta encourage everyone to dream big whether their vision is to one day send humans to Mars or design a future fleet of space-craft to voyage deep into the galaxy in search of life. One display showed a relatively modest scheme: deploying 3D printers to the moon. The idea is to use lunar soil as the raw material to build igloo-like shelters for astronauts.

ESA’s slogan is “Space for Europe”.But on a whiteboard near the Mars Yard somebody has scrawled a more fitting motto: “Orbit high :=) and rove on!!”

ESA’s planned launches

2015 BepiColombo – a probe to explore Mercury – and Lisa Pathfinder, a technology test that aims to pioneer a new way of observing the universe

2016 ExoMars: an orbiter to explore Mars

2017 Cheops – studying planets orbiting nearby bright stars – and Solar Orbiter, which will venture closer to the Sun than any previous space mission to study it at close range

2018 Mission to land a rover on Mars to search for traces of life. Plus, the James Webb Space Telescope will explore the origins of the universe

2020 Space telescope Euclid will probe the expanding universe

2022 The Juice mission will explore the conditions of Jupiter’s ocean-bearing moons

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