August 7, 2014, by Brigitte Nerlich

Rosetta and the rubber duck: How we got to know a comet

CaptureI can’t really let Rosetta pass by without a little blog post… This was brought home to me when Alasdair Taylor tweeted on 2:21 PM – 6 Aug 2014: “Sexiest, crazy bonkers, rubber duck, chaotic town, Disneyland, big roller coaster, scary ride: all terms used to describe #Rosetta”. This made me curious about how people are writing and talking about this event.

I once blogged about the much more ephemeral comet Ison and the way it took on a personality for a short time. So I wanted to see what people said about Rosetta (the spacecraft) and about… ah the name… 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. Some call the comet ‘Chury’ or “C-G” or “67P” (which makes it sound a bit cheap).


People will be able to read ESA’s website on the Rosetta mission and the Rosetta Blog at their leisure (and watch a University of Nottingham 60 Symbol video on this event with Ed Copeland) (thanks for the hint, Paul Matthews). So I only want to quote some essential background from Wikipedia:

Rosetta was launched in March 2004 on an Ariane 5 rocket and was scheduled to reach the comet in August 2014.The spacecraft consists of two main elements: the Rosetta space probe orbiter, which features 12 instruments, and the Philae robotic lander, with an additional nine instruments. The Rosetta mission will orbit 67P for 17 months and is designed to complete the most detailed study of a comet ever attempted. The mission is controlled from the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC), in Darmstadt, Germany.” (wiki)

Rosetta arrived at the comet, that is, went into orbit, on 6 August. Philae is supposed to land on ‘the comet’ in November and I have to say I can’t wait! The mission is scheduled to end in December 2015, when the comet heads back out into the solar system, escorted still by Rosetta. (Here is an interactive timeline) We are dealing with real black sky research here!

Language and imagery

To see how people talked about this event, I looked briefly and not very systematically at English Language Media on Nexis and at some tweets. Somebody should really look at German media and German tweets too, as the Rosetta mission was a big thing in Germany! I downloaded this morning, 7 August, two days-worth of ~English news, that is, 238 articles and just scanned the headlines.

The story told was one of love and pursuit. The love story centred around the word ‘rendezvous’, which was almost always a ‘historic’ one. The (more extensive) pursuit story unfolded around the word ‘chase’ (and, of course, love stories and pursuit stories overlap!). We are told of Rosetta chasing the comet, of indeed being a comet chaser, as coming closer, arriving, catching the comet, catching up with it, hunting it, running it down, swinging alongside it; sometimes the comet is even described as ‘prey’. Catching the comet was quite difficult though, as finding the right way to it was like shifting “from zooming along a highway to entering a ‘Chaotic city’”.

Some articles talk of the comet giving up its secret – namely the key to life on earth. In this context reference is made to the name for the spacecraft which is derived from the famous Rosetta Stone which “provided the key to the modern understanding of Egyptian hieroglyphs.”

Literary references are made to Close Encounter, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, and, of course, Star Trek. Some, like Nautilus magazine on twitter, referred to a ‘new frontier’ (“The new frontier of space exploration, Comet 67P, has been reached by the @esa Rosetta craft. New TSS.”).

Potatoes, ducks and Klingon birds-of-prey

On twitter things were a bit different, especially as people began to tweet images of the oddly shaped comet. Some called it a ‘scientific Disneyland’, as Alasdair noted. Christopher Crockett tweeted about an observation made on an ESA blog: “But what about the surprising comet shape? Not the standard ‘potato’ that everyone was expecting – more like two potatoes stuck together, or even a duck.” He himself compared the comet to a Klingon bird-of-prey… Many tweeted about whether it was right to call the comet a rubber duck, as Ian Sample had done in a Guardian article (and many others too), or not. Jonathan Meyer tweeted: “Y’all saying #Rosetta looks like a duck have clearly never seen a duck.”

Coming to life

Some, like Paul Halpern, referred to literary representations of comets, by H. G. Wells for example: “What a wonderful thing it looked floating there” — HG Wells, In the Days of the Comet. This gave the story some historical and literary depth. Pallab Ghosh wrote about cultural connoations of comets: “The Earth will crack, there will be pestilence and fornication,. All because of #comets. Listen in″. He also used a different metaphor for the story of Rosetta’s pursuit and chase when he tweeted: “As #Rosetta approaches its comet are scientists capturing and pinning these fiery angels like butterflies on a board?”.

In terms of ‘alien’ life, some saw the face of a man on the comet and some saw a cat (or even Elvis)! However, the duck seems to be winning out. Alex Parker tweeted: “As predicted by the Rubber Ducky Model, 3D images clearly reveal that has a beak” (see here) (and as a duck). Alex also immortalised the comet, rather than Rosetta, as a Warhol inspired painting (see above!) So, together with the rubber duck epithet, Chury is beginning to steal the show from Rosetta in this celestial rendevouz and to be coming to life in our imaginations. We’ll have to wait until the end of this year in order to know whether there is more than metaphorical life on this comet!

Added 29 September, 2014: More info on the odd shape of the comet here:

Added 21 March 2015: Wonderful graphics of the dangers of landing on the rubber duck:

Now with added sci-fi! Ambition

Image by Alex_Parker Planetary astronomer at UC Berkeley, investigating the origin and history of the icy worlds at the edge of our solar system. Data visualization enthusiast.





Posted in space exploration