Click to enlarge.
Late last week, the Rosetta space probe orbiting Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko detached its comet lander Philae, Philae descended to the surface of the comet, bounced roughly twice, and photographed what was in its viewfield. It sent the photograph back to Earth, to mission control of the European Space Agency in Darmstadt, Germany.
I find it thrilling that, by pure coincidence, I am alive and sentient at the moment when human beings leave Earth, and send remarkable machines into space, and begin to explore the rest of the universe. We've been looking at the sky and the Moon and the planets -- and at comets -- and wondering what they are and what's on them for as long as we've been human. We've imagined ways to reach the Moon and the planets and other objects. Mere failure and frustration for 100,000 years never stopped us from wanting to see, to know, to travel there.
The surface of a comet -- we just got there. That's it, at the top, taken on 26 September 2014.
In 1986 I flew from Massachusetts USA to the desert of Australia to get the planet's best view of Comet Halley, and after two disappointingly overcast nights, I crawled out of my tent one night and there it was -- a broken white streak in the sky. Though I know much about it, though I knew its facts and figures and its fabled history, it was still very spooky. The night sky isn't supposed to have a strange thing like that. We saw it for many nights after that, and then the Alice Springs Astronomy Club (Yanks like me, mostly, who worked at the NSA electronic listening post called Pine Gap) let us look at the comet through their large portable telescopes.
Now we've sent a probe to a comet and landed on it to begin imaging its surface and drilling into it and analyzing its composition. The Rosetta/Philae mission hasn't gone perfectly. Its harpoons didn't fix it solidly to the comet, and when it finally stopped bouncing, it was in the shadow of a cliff. Philae gets its energy from solar panels, the needed power wasn't dependable enough, and now Philae's batteries are running low. (It may function well again when the comet passes near the Sun.)
Most of the women and men in Darmstadt mission control have worked on this project for ten years or more. These are very smart people, very clever, very dedicated. They all chose that this is how they wanted to spend this long, intense block of their lives, to land cameras and other experiments, on a comet. They all knew the chances of succeeding were very iffy.
But they did it! And have begun showing what Rosetta and Philae see to us!
This is quite amazing. This is spectacular.
One Englishwoman astronomer screamed and shrieked and jumped up and down when Darmstadt knew Philae had landed and was sending back data. An Australian astronomer proudly showed off the colorful tattoo of the Rosetta comet mission on his calf.
This is a wonderful thing. I wish Philae and Rosetta and everyone who helped make it happen well and good luck. They've already thrilled me and made me proud to be a human being. (And that's a very difficult feeling to get for the last few years.)