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

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Anita Sarkeesian: “I don’t like the words ‘troll’ and ‘bully’”

The media critic and GamerGate target tells the Guardian that online harassers need a rebrand.

Anita Sarkeesian has been under attack for an entire year. She has received bomb threats, rape threats, gun threats, and threats that events she was due to speak at would be attacked. Her home address was circulated in online gaming communities. Her crime? She started a Kickstarter campaign for her YouTube channel, Feminist Frequency, to fund a series called “Tropes vs Women in Video Games”, which catalogues the sexist stereotypes and attitudes in gaming. 

So overall, it's pretty unsurprising that Sarkeesian doesn't call her attackers "trolls" or "bullies", with their comfy associations of schoolyards and fairytale bridges. 

Speaking in an interview with Jessica Valenti, published in the Guardian this weekend, Sarkeesian explains her reasoning:

“I don’t like the words ‘troll’ and ‘bully’ – it feels too childish. This is harassment and abuse."

She also implies that these words tie into a delusion entertained by some of the men themselves – that the abuse is just a bit of fun. Yet whatever the intent, Sarkeesian argues, “it still perpetuates all of the harmful myths attached to that language and those words”.

The interview also covers GamerGate controversy as a whole and Sarkeesian’s rise to prominence as someone willing to speak publicly about the abuse she has receved. As she points out, however,

“There are a lot of people who are being targeted who don’t get the attention I do. Women of colour and trans women, in particular, are not getting media attention and not getting the support they need.”

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