Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is seen in a photo taken by the Rosetta spacecraft, 6 August. Photo: Getty
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Hunting the rocky rubber duck: how comet-chasing Rosetta could change history

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.

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. 

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, A century of meddling in the Middle East

Photo: Getty
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Move objects with your mind – telekinesis is coming to a human brain near you

If a user puts on the Neurable headset, they can move virtual objects with their thoughts. 

On 30 July, a blog post on Medium by Michael Thompson, the vice-president of Boston-based start-up Neurable, said his company had perfected a kind of technology which would be “redrawing the boundaries of human experience”. 

Neurable had just fulfilled the pipe dreams of science fiction enthusiasts and video game fanboys, according to Thompson – it had created a telekinetic EEG strap. In plain English, if a user puts on the Neurable headset, and plays a specially-designed virtual reality video game, they can move virtual objects with their thoughts. 

Madrid-based gaming company eStudioFuture collaborated with Neurable to create the game, Awakening. In it, the user breaks out of a government lab, battles robots and interacts with objects around them, all hands-free with Neurable's headset. Awakening debuted at SIGGRAPH, a computer graphics conference in Boston, where it was well received by consumers and investors alike.

The strap (or peripheral, as it’s referred to) works by modifying the industry standard headset of oversized goggles. Neurable's addition has a comb-like structure that reaches past your hair to make contact with the scalp, then detects brain activity via electroencephalogram (EEG) sensors. These detect specific kinds of neural signals. Thanks to a combination of machine-learning software and eye-tracking technology, all the user of the headset has to do is think the word “grab”, and that object will move – for example, throwing a box at the robot trying to stop you from breaking out of a government lab. 

The current conversation around virtual reality, and technologies like it, lurches between optimism and cynicism. Critics have highlighted the narrow range of uses that the current technology is aimed at (think fun facial filters on Snapchat). But after the debut of virtual reality headsets Oculus Rift and HTC Vive at 2016’s Game Developers conference, entrepreneurs are increasingly taking notice of virtual reality's potential to make everyday life more convenient.

Tech giants such as Microsoft, Facebook and Google have all been in on the game since as far back as 2014, when Facebook bought Oculus (of Oculus Rift). Then, in 2016, Nintendo and Niantic (an off-shoot from Google) launched Pokémon Go. One of Microsoft’s leading technical fellows, Alex Kipman, told Polygon that distinctions between virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality were arbitrary: "At the end of the day, it’s all on a continuum." 

Oculus’s Jason Rubin has emphasised the potential that VR has to make human life that much more interesting or efficient. Say that you're undergoing a home renovation – potentially, with VR technology, you could pop on your headset and see a hologram of your living room. You could move your virtual furniture around with minimal effort, and then do exactly the same in reality – in half the time and effort. IKEA already offers a similar service in store – imagine being able to do it yourself.

Any kind of experience that is in part virtual reality – from video games to online tours of holiday destinations to interactive displays at museums – will become much more immersive.

Microsoft’s Hololens is already being trialled at University College London Hospital, where students can study detailed holograms of organs, and patients can get an in-depth look at their insides projected in front of them (Hololens won’t be commercially available for a while.) Neurable's ambitions go beyond video games – its headset was designed by neuroscientists who had spent years working in neurotechnology. It offers the potential for important scientific and technological breakthroughs in areas such as prosthetic limbs. 

Whether it was a childhood obsession with Star Wars or out of sheer laziness, as a society, we remain fascinated by the thought of being able to move objects with our minds. But in actual realityVR and similar technologies bring with them a set of prickly questions.

Will students at well-funded schools be able to get a more in-depth look at topography in a geography lesson through VR headsets than their counterparts elsewhere? Would companies be able to maintain a grip on what people do in virtual reality, or would people eventually start to make their own (there are already plenty of DIY tutorials on the internet)? Will governments be able to regulate and monitor the use of insidious technology like augmented reality or mixed reality, and make sure that it doesn't become potentially harmful to minors or infringe on privacy rights? 

Worldwide spending on items such as virtual reality headsets and games is forecast to double every year until 2021, according to recent figures. Industry experts and innovators tend to agree that it remains extremely unlikely you’ll walk into someone examining a hologram on the street. All the same, VR technology like Neurable’s is slowly creeping into the fabric of our lived environment.