I’ve been a fan of space travel and NASA since I was a little boy. I read about the Mercury and Gemini programs and followed the Apollo missions. I dreamed of earthlings colonizing Mars, a dream helped along by Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and other books.
But I never thought I’d live to see mankind land a probe on a comet! Did you get that? Just when we thought the world was going to hell in all kinds of ways, when we felt all our institutions were failing us (they really aren’t, of course), we landed on a comet. Wow.
By “we” I mean the European Space Agency, with help from NASA. All morning I waited for the big event, and a little bit after 10 this morning it happened, as this tweet from ESA indicates:
“Philae” is the landing craft that left its mother ship, Rosetta, and landed on Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, which is currently 300 million miles away from Earth and headed toward the Sun. All of which merited a shout-out from Captain Kirk himself:
The journey to the comet took more than 10 years, after its launch in March of 2004. That was before some guy named Barack Obama gave the famous keynote speech at his party’s convention that first brought him national attention. Think of all the events we have witnessed since then. Yet, during all that time there was Rosetta speeding its way to a rendezvous with, and carrying a probe that would eventually land on—let me say it again—a comet! One of these things (photo of Comet West via NASA; Comet 67P can’t be seen with the naked eye):
Comet 67P actually looks like this closeup (the primary landing site is enlarged):
Needless to say, this is one stunning technical achievement, even though as of right now the probe Philae hasn’t been secured on the surface of the comet. Because Comet 67P is so small, its gravitational pull is hundreds of thousands of times weaker than Earth’s and harpoons were suppose to fire from the lander to help keep it in place. They didn’t fire and no one knows why. There are, though, ice screws on each of the lander’s three legs that are supposed to use the impact energy from the landing to drive them into the surface. Hopefully that will be enough to keep it attached while the science is conducted.
In any case, whatever happens, it is a remarkable day for our kind. I want to share with you what Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Sciences Division, had to say about the event. Mr. Green was at ESA when Philae touched down and couldn’t contain his American-style enthusiasm in front of the distinguished guests:
Personally, from my perspective, how audacious! How exciting! How unbelievable to be able to dare to land on a comet! To take that step that we’ve all wanted, from a scientific perspective…It is the start of something important. The Solar System is mankind’s. This mission is the first step to take it. It is ours! Let’s learn about the environment that we are in. It’s these steps that will lead us beyond this planet and onto Mars and out into the Solar System. I truly believe that a single planet’s species will not survive long. It’s our destiny to move off this planet.
You have to love the guy. He thinks big. Like human beings should do. This planet is too small to hold us!
I want to inject into this tribute to human ingenuity a note about a couple of old friends of mine. The old friends are actually spacecraft that were launched in 1977, one just before and one just after I turned 19. Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 are still alive and transmitting data back to earth, even though by the time the radio signals arrive here, they are less than a billionth of a billionth of a watt. Yet, those signals shout out our expansion into the universe.
Both Voyagers flew by Jupiter and Saturn, and Voyager 2 managed to also take in Uranus and Neptune on its scientific sightseeing tour of the Solar System. After their planetary missions, they headed for interstellar space. Voyager 2 is 10 billion miles away from home and counting and hasn’t yet reached the boundary that defines interstellar conditions. Voyager 1 has reached interstellar space—the first man-made object to do so—and is more than 12 billion miles from Earth. Travelling at 38,000 miles per hour, it is headed in the direction of the constellation Ophiuchus, which brings us back to the comet.
In Book II of Paradise Lost, John Milton compared Satan to a spectacular comet flashing across the constellation Ophiuchus:
Incens’d with indignation Satan stood
Unterrify’d, and like a comet burn’d
That fires the length of Ophiuchus huge
In th’ arctic sky, and from his horrid hair
Shakes pestilence and war.
Paradise Lost is based on the story of the Fall of Man found in the book of Genesis, a story that attempts to persuade us that death is God’s punishment upon us for our failure to resist Satan’s offer of forbidden knowledge. Milton’s use of the streaking comet as a metaphor for Satan shaking “pestilence and war” on mankind is perfect, now that we have actually set our collective feet on a real comet today. Perhaps it is that all the knowledge and imagination and intelligence that went into the ESA’s Rosetta mission represents a metaphorical conquering of our ancient fears and superstitions. And perhaps Voyager 1’s streaking “the length of Ophiuchus” represents a newer, far superior image of mankind than the horrific imagery found in the Old Testament and in Bible-based epics like Paradise Lost.
Aboard Voyager 1 is a 12-inch gold-plated phonograph record that holds selected cultural sounds and images of life on Earth. Featuring sounds of nature and music and a sampling of the world’s languages, NASA says the record is “intended to communicate a story of our world to extraterrestrials.” But I think the story is better told to ourselves. We are an amazing species when we want to be.
The great Carl Sagan, who chaired a committee that determined the content of the record aboard both Voyagers, said,
The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced spacefaring civilizations in interstellar space. But the launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet.
Indeed, it does. And so does riding a comet.