An illustration of Philae (right) detached from Rosetta (left) and falling towards the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko (background). Illustration: ESA
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Rosetta, Philae and the comet: what you need to know about today's historic space mission

Some background while we wait for the ESA's probe to touch down on the comet's surface.

UPDATE (16:04 GMT): Philae has landed!

This morning at 09:03 (GMT) the Rosetta probe successfully detached its main payload - the Philae lander. About the size of a washing machine, Philae is now drifting down towards the surface of the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which is currently out beyond the orbit of Mars, some 670 million km from the Sun.

It will take seven hours or so for Philae to become the first spacecraft to land on a comet. The European Space Agency is running informational programs all day on a livestream on its website - which you can watch here - and touchdown is expected to come at around 16:00 (GMT). It's going to be worth tuning in to the livestream beforehand to watch it happening in real-time.

Here's some background to today's big event:

The comet: The target of the mission today is a comet called 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, named after the two Russian astronomers who discovered it in 1969. It's just over 4km across, takes 6.45 years to orbit the Sun, and one of the most wonderful discoveries of the mission so far is that it looks a little bit like a rubber duck. Here's what it would look like if it was hovering over central London:

Image: ESA

Rosetta: The European Space Agency's probe was first planned out in the mid-1990s, and launched in 2004. Today's event has been at least 20 years in the making, if not longer, and it is an extraordinary achievement of science and engineering. 67P/C-G is currently on the inward part of its orbit around the Sun, but like many comets it orbits in a highly elliptical fashion relative to Earth. The reason it's taken ten years to get Rosetta in position is that the probe had to make multiple passes around the Sun, Earth and even Mars to give it gravity boosts in the correct direction. Here's a video show what happened:

Now, Rosetta is orbiting the Sun along the same orbital path as the comet - but the final steps to get into that position were extremely tricky, with the engines required to make adjustments with a series of triangular orbits to ensure it got as close as possible. The comet's gravity is quite weak, so it was never going to be as easy as it is to, for example, put a satellite into orbit around the Moon:

Image: ESA

Of the data expected to be collected over the duration of the entire mission, most will come from Rosetta. It has extensively mapped the comet's surface and density from different heights, measured how it reacts to the solar wind, and analysed the dust and gasses it has flown through in its wake. The expectation is that Rosetta will remain in a tight orbit of 10km in height around the comet as it travels in towards and around the Sun, giving crucial insight into the development and structure of the tail that will form as it heats up and sheds mass. ESA scientists hope for at least another year and a half of study from Rosetta until either the damage from the flying debris gets too great or the solar panels are coated with too much dust to provide energy - but there is every possibility it could survive longer than that.

Comets are fragments of the early Solar System - examples of the kinds of lumps of rock and ice which collided together billions of years ago to form the planets as we know them, and as such analysing them can reveal hugely significant facts about what our place in the universe was like when the Sun was first born. There is even the possibility of settling the question of whether life-giving minerals and chemicals - including water - were "seeded" on Earth by comets in its early past, making them essential building blocks for life. It is very literally a mission of immense historic importance.

It's also worth noting the symbolism of this mission, being as it is arguably the European Space Agency's finest work so far (or, at least, fingers are crossed for the landing). Philae's landing will come a day after the hundredth anniversary of the European continent tearing itself apart in one of the bloodiest conflicts ever known; a hundred years later, the nations of Europe are working together for the betterment of scientific research, and to further understand our shared origins. We should celebrate this.

Philae: The lander doesn't have any engines or thrusters of its own, so mission controllers this morning had to time its release from Rosetta extremely carefully. We know that it worked successfully, and Philae is currently drifting like an extremely slow baseball pitch towards the comet's surface.

Since it doesn't have any way of propelling itself, the plan for when it reaches the surface is like something out of a movie. It's going to fire a harpoon gun at the surface to anchor itself, and then, when it manages to winch itself down, drills in each of its three legs will dig downwards as well, giving Philae a solid chance of not bouncing off back into space, helpless. (This is a real worry - the Japanese probe Hayabusa-1 had a lander called Minerva which was meant to land on an asteroid in 2005, but it missed and floated away.)

Signals from Earth also take roughly half an hour to reach both Rosetta and Philae, so it has to do this completely on auto-pilot. Part of the problem with Rosetta being such a success so far is that it has revealed the existing dichotomy between "asteroid" (a big rock) and "comet" (a big snowball) isn't quite right - the stunning pictures that Rosetta has taken so far show it to be quite a rocky and dusty place. Philae's harpoon was designed for ice, not rock, or dust. ISS astronaut Alexander Gerst filmed a video explaining the harpoon, which is nice:

What next?: You can watch the ESA livestream, which should be returning video and images from Philae as it happens. Randall Munroe of xkcd is also doing a "live cartoon" of sorts, if you want something a bit different. And, while waiting, some of the ESA mission scientists are shaving their heads in support for pancreatic cancer research - feel free to support them.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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The one where she turns into a USB stick: the worst uses of tech in films

The new film Worst Tinder Date Ever will join a long tradition of poorly-thought-through tech storylines.

News just in from Hollywood: someone is making a film about Tinder. What will they call it? Swipe Right, perhaps? I Super Like You? Some subtle allusion to the app’s small role in the plotline? Nope – according to Hollywood Reporterthe film has been christened Worst Tinder Date Ever.

With the exception of its heavily branded title (You’ve Got Gmail, anyone?), Worst Tinder Date Ever follows neatly in the tradition of writers manhandling tech into storylines. Because really, why does it matter if it was a Tinder date? This “rom com with action elements” reportedly focuses on the couple’s exploits after they meet on the app, so the dogged focus on it is presumably just a ploy to get millennial bums on cinema seats.  

Like the films on this list, it sounds like the tech in Worst Tinder Date Ever is just a byword for “modern and cool” – even as it demonstrates that the script is anything but.

Warning: spoilers ahead.

Lucy (2014)

Scarlett Johansson plays Lucy, a young woman who accidentally ingests large quantities of a new drug which promises to evolve your brain beyond normal human limits.

She evolves and evolves, gaining superhuman powers, until she hits peak human, and turns into first a supercomputer, and then a very long USB stick. USB-Lucy then texts Morgan Freeman's character on his fliphone to prove that: “I am everywhere.”

Beyond the obvious holes in this plotline (this wouldn’t happen if someone’s brain evolved; texting a phone is not a sign of omnipotence), USB sticks aren’t even that good – as Business Insider points out: “Flash drives are losing relevance because they can’t compete in speed and flexibility with cloud computing services . . . Flashdrives also can’t carry that much information.”

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

If you stare at it hard enough, the plotline in the latest Star Wars film boils down to the following: a gaggle of people travels across space in order to find a map showing Luke Skywalker’s location, held on a memory stick in a drawer in a spherical robot. Yep, those pesky flash drives again.

It later turns out that the map is incomplete, and the rest of it is in the hands of another robot, R2-D2, who won’t wake up for most of the film in order to spit out the missing fragment. Between them, creator George Lucas and writer and director JJ Abrams have dreamed up a dark vision of the future in which robots can talk and make decisions, but can’t email you a map.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)

In which a scientist uses a computer to find the “precise location of the three remaining golden tickets sent out into the world by Willy Wonka. When he asks it to spill the beans, it announces: “I won’t tell, that would be cheating.


Image: Paramount Pictures. 

The film inhabits a world where artificial intelligence has been achieved, but no one has thought to pull Charlie's poor grandparents out of extreme poverty, or design a computer with more than three buttons.

Independence Day (1996)

When an alien invasion threatens Earth, David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) manages to stop it by hacking the alien spaceship and installing a virus. Using his Mac. Amazing, really, that aliens from across the universe would somehow use computing systems so similar to our own. 

Skyfall (2012)

In the Daniel Craig reboot of the series, MI6’s “Q” character (played by Ben Whishaw) becomes a computer expert, rather than just a gadget wizard. Unfortunately, this heralded some truly cringeworthy moments of “hacking” and “coding” in both Skyfall and Spectre (2014).

In the former, Bond and Q puzzle over a screen filled with a large, complex, web shape. They eventually realise it’s a map of subterranean London, but then the words security breach flash up, along with a skull. File under “films which make up their own operating systems because a command prompt box on a Windows desktop looks too boring”.

An honourable mention: Nelly and Kelly Rowland’s “Dilemma” (2009)

Not a movie, but how could we leave out a music video in which Kelly Rowland texts Nelly on a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet on a weird Nokia palm pilot?


Image: Vevo.

You’ll be waiting a long time for that response, Kelly. Try Tinder instead.

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.