We learn a lot about ourselves from the newspapers. When the Times reported the launch of the comet-hunting Rosetta spacecraft in March 2004, the story merited only 44 words. The report was consigned to page eight; the front page was dominated by the Ashura massacre in Iraq, in which al-Qaeda bombers killed 178 Shia Muslims.
Ten years later, after Rosetta finally reached comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the Times put the spacecraft on page 19, behind stories of wrangles over monkey-selfies, among other things. But don’t be fooled: Rosetta is important. In an era of fatalistic acceptance of humanity’s shortcomings, the Rosetta team reminds us what we can achieve.
The comet, which is about 400 million kilometres from earth, appears to be composed of two lumps of rock, one smaller than the other, so that it resembles a rocky rubber duck. To put its spacecraft into orbit around this oddity, with an eventual view to sending an instrument-laden craft to the surface in a controlled landing, the European Space Agency has had to harness unprecedented creativity.
The solution is this: initially, Rosetta will orbit the comet in a triangular pattern as it maps the exact shape and density of the rock. For two weeks, Rosetta will be at 100km from its surface, then at 70km – at which point the flying will get more difficult. The comet occasionally ejects plumes of gas from its core, and these will buffet the spacecraft, potentially knocking it off course. Early next month, if all has gone well, Rosetta will drop into a circular orbit 30km from the comet’s surface. After another fortnight, it will move further in, sitting at a precarious distance of 10km. Then, in November, the lander will drop to the surface and the team will have made history.
The mission’s aim is to discover what exactly the comet is made of. This ball of rock and ice formed at the same time as our solar system and should, if predictions are correct, contain complex organic molecules, the same stuff as terrestrial life is made from. Rosetta’s lander is equipped with instruments that will help us determine whether life on earth was seeded by a comet crashing into our planet. As history lessons go, it doesn’t get more profound than this.
Such is the promise of the mission that the researchers have described comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko as “scientific Disneyland”. There will certainly be a roller-coaster ride as the comet moves towards the sun: some of its ice core will be vaporised, throwing out pieces of rock and jets of steam, making its environment hard to endure.
But endure Rosetta no doubt will. The problem-solving demonstrated by the research team showcases what scientists can achieve when they collaborate internationally. Two thousand people, from 14 European countries and the US, are creating milestones in, and lessons about, human history. So it’s a shame that humanity’s worst side seems to eclipse Rosetta’s every move.
The lander will touch down on the comet’s surface – our first controlled landing on a comet – on 11 November. That will be Armistice Day, in the centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War. Most media reports will no doubt squander the chance to celebrate humanity’s greater achievements, preferring that we wring our hands about history and yet fail to learn its lessons. Don’t be distracted: there will be more insight to gain from Rosetta’s moment of glory.