ESA uses kids' toy to plot flight paths

With the organisation’s funding looking increasingly shaky, scientists at the European Space Agency have built a spaceship out of Lego.

They roped in a bunch of engineering students at the University of Rome – hey, cheap labour! – to help build the next version of the Rosetta comet-chasing spacecraft.

“It was quite difficult, because all the moving parts are not so easy to rebuild, so we had to figure out something – some way to realise some mechanism that could move,” said aerospace engineering Filippo Ales, proudly.

ESA plans to send a build-your-own kit out to schools as an educational tool.

But, it says, the first Lego version of Rosetta was actually created for practical use within ESA itself. It was used as a way of helping the scientists visualise the spaceship’s flight path during planning meetings.

Personally, if I were planning to take part in a spaceflight – and I’m sure the invitation is in the post – I’d like to think that the body in charge of drawing up and carrying out the entire European space programme had slightly better prototyping technologies to draw upon.

But perhaps not. ESA has frozen spending for this year and next at last year’s level of E3.35 billion. And director of resources management Ludwig Kronthaler recently commented: “It’s clear we have to prepare ourselves that 2011 and 2012 might be tighter.”

“In the end, of course, we have to comply with the affordability,” he added. “It’s clear we have to tighten the belt.”

The Lego prototype is a great idea – and one, we feel, that should be adopted by other cash-strapped organisations.

Instead of whingeing about budgetary constraints, why on earth doesn’t the Ministry of Defence equip our brave boys with this H M Armed Forces Ultimate Dress-Up Set from Argos? Cut the cost of the Civil List by housing the Queen in a bouncy castle?

In fact, I’ve just had a rather pleasant thought: please do excuse me while I go and explain to the trainee reporter (Yes, he came back from the moon; apparently he didn’t like the climate) why he’s getting paid in Monopoly money this month.