Thursday, November 13, 2014


Maybe you've realized this from my science fiction fanaticism, or possibly because I took my burlesque name from one of the moons of Saturn, but in case you don't know this, I have a MASSIVE space obsession. Like, huge. I habitually watch anything on the television that has to do with space, despite the fact that I complain every time because the shows are aimed at people with far less space knowledge than I have and are therefore usually boring for me. One time I talked StereoNinja into taking an online course with me about Astrobiology and the search for extraterrestrial life through the University of Edinburgh. And I have made him very aware, in numerous discussions, that if given the opportunity to go to Mars or any other space mission in which I knew ahead of time I was never coming back the Earth, I would not hesitate*.

Yesterday, we landed a probe on a comet.

I couldn't concentrate yesterday. I had been hanging on every GO/NOGO checkpoint starting the night before, and was running the live feed from ESA mission control in the background on my machine all day. I spent the day updating my coworkers on every progress report whether they gave a shit or not. I gave real thought to what I would say when we had confirmation that the lander had touched down. In the end, I didn't say anything, because when the control room erupted in cheers I was too choked up to speak. Someone figured it out by reading my screen over my shoulder. "They landed it?" he asked me, and all I could do was weakly nod my head and they he asked me "Wait, are you crying?" and I said "SHUT UP I'M NOT CRYING, YOU'RE CRYING." I can't believe this was just one news item of many yesterday. I'm not sure if people even realize this, but this mission is the biggest thing to happen in space exploration since we put PEOPLE ON THE MOON, and is arguably far more important: comets are the leading theory about how we got water on the Earth in the first place, meaning that without them, there wouldn't have been anyone TO land on the moon.

Today, there seems to be a lot of complaining in the news about the mission. It didn't go precisely perfectly. The lander bounced, twice, because its screws and harpoons failed to deploy and the cold gas thruster that was meant to push it against the surface wasn't responding to commands. They're not entirely sure where exactly it is, since one of those bounces went up about a kilometer in the air and was off the ground for two hours and they're not sure where exactly it ended up, but it seems to be on the edge of a canyon or maybe not entirely upright, and it's settled in a place that doesn't get much sunlight, so the batteries may not be able to recharge. So everything didn't work out exactly as they'd hoped, and the media appears to be questioning the overall success of the mission. I think they are missing the point entirely:


Space exploration doesn't always go as planned because studying space from actual space is hard. Two tragedies a week ago with a resupply and a test flight should be enough of a reminder of this, and if it's not, let's not forget that we blew up two space shuttles, killed some Apollo astronauts in a fire, and, obviously, Apollo 13. Space is hard. But we did it: Philae is on the comet, sending data and photos and doing science, and if it runs out of batteries on Sunday as is currently expected, so what? We already know more than we ever have before. The only appropriate reaction to be have having right now is sheer and total AMAZEMENT - with our brilliant scientific minds and our incredible universe.

*Yes, I know there is a planned no-return Mars mission in the works, but there are some serious issues with those plans that need to be worked out and I don't think they're going to even come close to making their target date.


S said...

I worked from home that day so I could live-stream from ESA. Goooo Philaeeee!

Paul Anthony Shortt said...

Not to mention that landing anything on a thing in space is extra hard because ALL OF THE THINGS ARE MOVING ALL OF THE TIME!

Anonymous said...

I took the astrobiology course too! Coursera is awesome for free courses in things you want to take but can't afford to go back to school for something that's just interesting, not actually helpful career wise... SCIENCE! I was watching the live feed while also watching this. The first few images are blank, but after that it's a really awesome comic that was being made live as the whole event unfolded.

The Mars One mission is doomed to failure, but I support it anyway because even if they get close at all they're still helping increase public interest in a mars mission and science in general which is always awesome, and anything they manage to do to advance the science required to get there is always a good thing. So doomed, but still positive.

I'm surprised more news outlets aren't talking about what this means for last years whole 'we're going to mine comets for resources!' talk from Elon Musk. I mean, this is basically a proof of concept for stage 1 of that plan; get to and land on a comet. It cost way more than it's worth at this point, but it should get progressively cheaper to accomplish.

I LOVE THE SOUND IT MAKES. Just had to add that...