THE landing of the Philae module shows how far teamwork has taken us from the very origins of the universe, writes Tiffany Jenkins.
There is an amusing moment in the film Interstellar which speaks to the culture of suspicion and low expectations that has beset space. It is set in a future in which people are starving due to crop blight. Space exploration is no longer on the agenda. Mostly everyone is a farmer, desperate slaves to the earth, which is increasingly difficult because corn is the only viable crop left and it is dwindling dangerously. Matthew McConaughey, the star of the movie, is an astronaut who has been forced to turn his hand to the soil. He is reprimanded by the teacher of his children for giving them a textbook which contains the “wrong” information – it documents the moon landings. The teacher reminds him that the Apollo missions were faked to bankrupt the Soviet Union.
It’s funny, because such conspiracy thinking really does exist. Soon after the moon landings took place, all sorts of strange theories were advanced and have since gained traction which suggest they were an elaborate hoax. It’s not hard to understand why, given the landings were such an impossibly ambitious thing to do and distrust in our political leaders is on the rise. What also rings true is the waning of enthusiasm for space exploration. It has been considered too expensive with unpredictable outcomes, and too risky – too many have died far away from planet earth. For some, the unknown should remain so.
Martin Rees, the cosmologist and astrophysicist, reflected on this shift in attitudes, the lowering of horizons, on the death of Neil Armstrong, in 2012. Space is no longer glamorous, Rees said. The young at school: “. . .learn that America landed men on the moon just as they learn that the Egyptians built the pyramids, but the motivations seem almost as bizarre in the one case as in the other,” he mused. Well, maybe attitudes are changing again. Because when it comes to space, things are looking up.
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I was one of the many millions who watched, on the edge of my seat, as scientists from the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission landed a Philae lander module on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. It was remarkable to see and wonderful to experience the shared joy in their success.
I have been following the mission for some time, with some trepidation, because so often in such complex, uncharted territory, things go wrong. But not this time. At least, not yet.
A landing instrument broke on the way down, and there are concerns about the battery life of the lander but, even if it peters out, the mission has already made history.
Probes have been sent to comets before. Nasa’s Ice Mission flew through Halley’s comet in 1986; Nasa’s Deep Impact spacecraft fired a copper block at another comet, in 2005. But this is the first time a probe has pulled up alongside a comet and landed, which is no small matter. To reach the comet, Rosetta travelled over six billion kilometres.
Its probe, Philae, then boarded the comet as it orbited the sun at speeds up to 135,000km/h. The surface of the duck-shaped comet, which is 2.4 miles long by 2.1 miles wide, is inhospitable to an easy landing, consisting of hills, cliffs, and cratered planes and, adding to the difficulty, the gravitational pull on the comet is very weak. Philae also needs to be positioned in sunlight to recharge its batteries.
But the probe is there now, as I write, riding the comet as it hurtles around the sun. It’s even on Twitter: Philae has a predilection for updates with exclamation points, but no wonder. It’s exciting!!
So far, the mission has taken a decade. Rosetta was launched ten years ago, by the European Space Agency, in March 2004 at a cost of 1.4 billion euros. And it just may pay off. What happened this week is a giant step forward, if by a robot, for mankind.
The mission’s aim is to unlock the mysteries of comets, the dirty snowball that humankind has stared up at in fear and wonder for centuries. Philae will now ride on board the comet and study from the surface what happens to it as it gets closer to the sun. It will carry out a range of experiments to help us better understand the very origins of the comet, our planet and of the universe.
The probe is sniffing and tasting the comet and it hopes to stay there for the next year. Already, we can see what the comet is like from the pictures beamed back to us on earth, its strange landscape of craters and boulders.
We can even hear it sing: the day before the landing, ESA released an audio clip of the low-frequency, irregular sound emitted by oscillations in the comet’s magnetic field.
The sound it makes has been compared to that of Predator, the alien that tried to kill Arnold Schwarzenegger in another science fiction movie. I think it’s more reminiscent of a Triffid.
Scientists hope that Rosetta will unlock the mysteries of how the solar system evolved.
The study of comets is the way to do this because they are one of the most primitive objects in the solar system and have changed very little since their formation, thus they reflect what the system was like more than 4,600 million years ago.
Researchers want to learn more about how the solar system formed and how comets carried water and complex organics to the planets, preparing the stage for life on Earth.
Rosetta gets its name from the Rosetta stone found in Egypt 200 years ago, which led to the deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphics, a tremendous breakthrough which meant we could understand an ancient human civilisation. This new Rosetta mission could help us understand, ultimately, the very start of life on our blue planet.
This little probe and the teamwork it took to launch and land it is an inspiring lesson to us all. It shows that the old motivations for exploring ourselves and the universe are not so alien after all.
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