Philae Calls Home
I know, it’s in the news. I have been insanely busy, and not able to post, but this came along and I just had to add my two cents. The Philae lander, a probe that made the first landing on a comet, has returned to life after seven months in unintended frozen hibernation on the comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko. This is truly a historic moment in space exploration, I don’t think there’s ever been a case where communication was lost with a probe, and then re-acquired months later. It’s a wonderful moment in an amazing mission in the ongoing Golden Age of space exploration. I will try to share my sense of awe and excitement. Humour me.
The twentieth century. It’s passed now, but it was packed with events. Most people now would talk of Hitler, communism, World Wars, assassinations, the rise of technology, etc. Future generations may remember it for one thing, on July 21 1969 humans first set foot on the Moon. The human exploration of the galaxy had begun. A true Golden Age of exploration had begun. When I was a kid all that was known of planets and bodies beyond Earth was a few fuzzy telescope pictures. All we knew about the Solar System (let alone the galaxy) could be summarized in a few pages in the beginning of atlases.
Well, a few decades later, and we have learned a few things. Dozens of probes have been sent out, some leaving the Solar System itself. And while many probes have been lost, most have succeeded. Humanity now has active probes all over the Solar System. Mars and the Moon are under continual satellite observation. It’s been the greatest Age of Exploration ever. Columbus re-discovered a few continents, we now discover new worlds almost daily.
And part of that exploration has been comets. As most people know, the Solar System is a bunch of planets orbiting the Sun. Also spinning around the Sun are small bodies of dirty ice, comets. Like Comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko, helpfully illustrated above. It’s about 3 km (2 miles) long, not very big compared to Earth, but still, a flying mountain in space. And while it was still outside the orbit of Mars, the next planet out from Earth, the Rosetta space probe went into orbit around it. It was in fact the first probe to orbit a comet. Comets are believed to be leftover stuff from the birth of the Solar System, so it is hoped this probe will help understand the early Solar System, the same way the actual Rosetta Stone helped understand human’s early history.
And after it went into orbit, the Rosetta Probe dropped the Philae lander, a probe about the size of a washing machine, which was to hit the comet and anchor itself to the surface. Alas, the surface of the comet was harder than anyone expected, and instead of anchoring itself safely, the lander bounced. And bounced. And bounced. And landed somewhere shady, worked for a few days, then went to sleep because its solar panels were in the shade. And that was that, the lander had done some good science in its few days, and there was some possibility it would wake up again as the comet got closer to the Sun, but most people wrote it off as one of many lost probes.
Nope. It’s back. Philae has called home. It survived months in the dark at about 35 degrees Kelvin (-400F, -240C) in a complete vacuum. So cold human flesh would almost instantly freeze solid. So cold virtually every device humans have made would instantly break as parts of it contracted in the cold. So inhospitable to human life that it’s hard to imagine. And even if one was in the sunlight on Churyumov–Gerasimenko, it would result in a fatal sunburn. And yet our engineers and scientists were able to build a robotic machine that survived intact and dormant in this frighteningly extreme environment, and has returned to life to send us more data.
This is human ingenuity at its best. This shows that humans can build machines to work in environments so extreme they don’t exist on Earth. This shows a desire to understand reality that is on par with other great human endeavours. This accomplishment was science fiction just a few decades ago. Fantasy if not madness a few centuries ago. We may be destroying our own planet, but we are simultaneously reaching for the stars. That Philae has returned to life is a good sign. Let us be happy.
No worries, future posts will be more depressing.
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. Credit and copyright: Matt Wang, Flickr: anosmicovni. European Space Agency. Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko Relative to Downtown Los Angeles. And because people just have to know, if comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko was to hit Earth (it can’t) the results would be catastrophic. It would make a 40 km (25 mile) wide crater for starters. Continent wide devastation, global effects. It would be the worst disaster to ever befall the human race. It might even interfere with publication of this blog.)