November 12, 2014, by Brigitte Nerlich
Kissing a comet
Rocks, robots and us
When I switched on the ESA live feed about the comet landing this morning, I heard one of the lead scientists say that landing on the comet after such a long time of preparation, calculation and exploration was like waiting for a ‘first kiss‘. This was also picked up by some tweeters – with a nice bit of wordplay:
Astrophil tweeted: @Commentators at ESA say today philae will kiss 67P. is this a bit of philaelandering! #Philae #Rosetta #CometLanding #bbc #esa_rosetta”
Maxplanckpress tweeted: “Gerhard Schwehm: “Today is a big moment, when .@Philae2014 will land it will be like the first kiss!” #cometlanding (fm)”
Others saw the landing as something less gentle and, more realistically perhaps, as a bit more violent. AstroKatie tweeted: “There’s this comet. Orbiting Sun, minding its own business, for billions of yrs. Now a little metal box will attack it with harpoons & claws”. The Financial Times spoke about ‘Seven hours of terror’ to comet fall. And the last hour was certainly extremely tense.
After the landing, Philae is programmed to begin scratching “the surface to reveal the complex chemistry of the cometary surface”, a surface that “couldn’t be less inviting, with sharp, lander-destroying rock and ice shards all over the surface making the landing fraught with danger …” And for a while there was a real worry that this surface would prove too difficult for landing, and, of course, kissing. And as there are problems with the harpoons, we’ll have to wait and see how and whether Philae manages to hang on to comet.
Hot rocks, cold rocks, icy rocks, stationary rocks, wandering rocks – we have always anthropomorphised rocks in the sky, ever since we became human. The man in the moon, the sun that’s got its hat on… Sometimes we have even populated rocks with humans: think about Mars and its aliens, think about Herschel populating the moon and much more. In fact seeing something as something else makes us human (in a very strong sense of make). Seeing something else as human is even more humanising, as it makes us think about what makes us human; it makes us look at ourselves in a different way, from a different perspective. This was perhaps never more true than when we saw Earth for the first time as a rock in space.
It is perhaps no surprise then that we have come to anthropomorphise yet another rock, 67P. Its has become kissable, although, in a bit of a mixture of morphings, we are actually or imaginative kissing a rubber duck. This kissable rock is invisible to the naked eye (it is 511m km from Earth), but has been made visible and now explorable by ‘spacerobots’ through whose eyes we can see and whose instruments can scratch, sorry, kiss, it; and, of course, we have also, and even more so, anthropomorphised these space robots; think about Curiosity and now Philae.
This anthropomorphised vision of the space mission found its best expression an animation that attracted adjectives like ‘overcute’ and ‘adorable’. And, I can just see the Lego models of the mission (and the paper ones and die-cast ones) appearing under Christmas trees. Here is a random tweet and image, chosen from many, showing this humanising in action (more here https://twitter.com/Philae2014):
Here is a fantastic picture from Rosetta’s Osiris instrument that shows the Philae lander on its way to the comet with its little legs stretched out! But there is still a problem and ESA tweeted: “Hang on in there Philae! MT
@Philae2014: I’m on the surface but my harpoons did not fire. My team now trying to determine why. #CometLanding”.
However …. after the successful landing or ‘rendezvous’, after the kiss, so to speak, Stephan Ulamec, the Philae lander manager told the news: “Philae is [now] talking to us” (BBC News 4:15pm). Let’s hope this conversation between the rock, the robots and us continues. And it seems to!
Space, science and imagination
Space is a space into which we project ourselves physically and imaginatively (in words, images, music, cartoons (xkcd!), and of course tweets). This successful space and science mission is just another, but major, step in this continuous journey of discovery of rocks and of ourselves – and ultimately perhaps of where we come from.
Added 2 January 2015: A poignant song about Philae by Helen Arney
Image: Painted piece of rock on my windowsill