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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New Times: David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

The digital revolution has had two profound effects on how power is distributed – both of which squeeze the state's power.

Left-wing political parties exist to use the power of the state to rectify unjust distributions of power in society. What has gone wrong with this project? First, the political parties bit. Established parties everywhere are struggling to seem relevant to most people’s everyday concerns: they look increasingly like the tired relics of a more hierarchical age. The exception, of course, is the current Labour Party, which has opened itself up to become the biggest mass-membership party in Europe. But the trade-off has been to move away from seeing the acquisition of power as its primary purpose. These days parties can only really draw people in by offering to be vehicles for the expression of political resentment and disenchantment. But that is no way to rectify the causes of their resentment; neglecting the challenge of power usually ends up making things worse.

However, this is just a symptom of the wider problem, which is the changing nature of power. Technology lies at the heart of it. The digital revolution has had two profound effects on how power is distributed. First, it has empowered individuals, by providing them with unprecedented access to information, tools of communication and the means of expression. This is power exercised as choice: we all now have multiple ways of registering our likes and dislikes that never existed before.

Second, the digital revolution has empowered networks, creating vast new webs that span the globe. Some of them, such as Facebook, are close to being monopolies. We end up joining the networks that other people have joined, because that’s where the action is. This gives a small number of networks an awful lot of power.

Both of these developments are deeply problematic for the power of the state. The proliferation of choice makes citizens much harder to satisfy. Many of us have got used to micromanaging our lives in ways that leaves government looking flat-footed and unresponsive, no matter how hard it tries. At the same time, states face global networks that they have no idea how to control. International finance is one of these: money is information and information now has too many different ways to flow. States are getting squeezed.

The paradox is that the same forces that are squeezing the state are also giving impetus to left-wing politics. There are huge imbalances of power being created in networked societies. The monopolists are hoovering up money and influence. Personal connections count for more than ever, now that networked connections have become ubiquitous. Education is turning into a way of pulling up the drawbridge rather than moving up the ladder. One temptation for the left is to assume that the evidence of injustice will sooner or later outweigh the disabling effects of these social forces on the state. That is part of the Corbyn gamble: hang around until people are sufficiently pissed off to start demanding social-democratic solutions to their problems.

I don’t think this is going to happen. There is nothing to suggest that popular dissatisfaction will find its way back to the state as its best outlet. It will be channelled through the networks that are making the life of the state increasingly difficult.

The other temptation is to think that the left can achieve its goals by bypassing conventional social democracy and channelling its own ambitions into network politics. This is the other side of the Corbyn gamble, or at least the view of some of the people who have attached themselves to him: a new politics is coming that uses digital technology to mobilise fleet-footed networks of activists who can generate change without going through the cumbersome and time-consuming process of winning general elections. That also looks pretty wishful to me. These networks are just another vehicle for expressing personal preferences. They don’t have any means of changing the preferences of people who think differently. You need to win power to do that.

The state’s power is being squeezed by networks of empowered individuals, but these networks don’t have the kind of power necessary to do the redistributive work of the state. What is the left to do? It needs to try to find value in the fact that the state is not just another network. The right does this instinctively, by talking up the state’s security functions and championing ideas of sovereignty and national identity. But that does nothing to address the deleterious effects of living in a modern networked society, where we are swamped by personal choice but impotent in the face of corporate and financial power.

Rather than trying to harness the power of networks, the left should stand up for people against the dehumanising power of Big Data. The state isn’t Google and should not try to pretend to be. We don’t need more choice. We don’t need more efficiency of the kind that digital technology is endlessly supplying. We need protection from the mindless bureaucratic demands of the new machine age: the relentless pursuit of information, regardless of the human cost. There are limits to what the state can do but it retains some real power. It still employs real human beings; it educates them and provides them with welfare. It should do what is in its power to make the work tolerable and the education meaningful, to provide welfare in ways that don’t leave people at the mercy of faceless systems. The left needs to humanise the state.

At the moment, too much energy is being spent trying to humanise the party. We are told that people are tired of robotic, careerist politicians; they want unspun versions of people like themselves. But robotic politicians aren’t the problem; the coming age of robots is. While the party tries to feel more comfortable with itself, the effects of a networked society are running rampant. Acquiring the power of the state is still the best way to fight back. It doesn’t matter if that has to be done in an ugly, mechanised, artificial way, by careerist politicians with whom we wouldn’t choose to spend our personal time. Better an ugly, artificial politics than an ugly, artificial world. 

David Runciman is a professor of politics and the head of the department of politics and international studies at Cambridge

This article is part of a New Times collection of the future of the left. Read the other pieces here.

 

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times