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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Should Facebook face the heat for the Cleveland shooting video?

On Easter Sunday, a man now dubbed the “Facebook killer” shot and killed a grandfather before uploading footage of the murder to the social network. 

A murder suspect has committed suicide after he shot dead a grandfather seemingly at random last Sunday. Steve Stephens (pictured above), 37, was being hunted by police after he was suspected of killing Robert Godwin, 74, in Cleveland, Ohio.

The story has made international headlines not because of the murder in itself – in America, there are 12,000 gun homicides a year – but because a video of the shooting was uploaded to Facebook by the suspected killer, along with, moments later, a live-streamed confession.

After it emerged that Facebook took two hours to remove the footage of the shooting, the social network has come under fire and has promised to “do better” to make the site a “safe environment”. The site has launched a review of how it deals with violent content.

It’s hard to poke holes in Facebook’s official response – written by Justin Osofsky, its vice president of global operations – which at once acknowledges how difficult it would have been to do more, whilst simultaneously promising to do more anyway. In a timeline of events, Osofsky notes that the shooting video was not reported to Facebook until one hour and 45 minutes after it had been uploaded. A further 23 minutes after this, the suspect’s profile was disabled and the videos were no longer visible.

Despite this, the site has been condemned by many, with Reuters calling its response “bungled” and the two-hour response time prompting multiple headlines. Yet solutions are not as readily offered. Currently, the social network largely relies on its users to report offensive content, which is reviewed and removed by a team of humans – at present, artificial intelligence only generates around a third of reports that reach this team. The network is constantly working on implementing new algorithms and artificially intelligent solutions that can uphold its community standards, but at present there is simply no existing AI that can comb through Facebook’s one billion active users to immediately identify and remove a video of a murder.

The only solution, then, would be for Facebook to watch every second of every video – 100 million hours of which are watched every day on the site – before it goes live, a task daunting not only for its team, but for anyone concerned about global censorship. Of course Facebook should act as quickly as possible to remove harmful content (and of course Facebook shouldn’t call murder videos “content” in the first place) but does the site really deserve this much blame for the Cleveland killer?

To remove the blame from Facebook is not to deny that it is incredibly psychologically damaging to watch an auto-playing video of a murder. Nor should we lose sight of the fact that the act, as well as the name “Facebook killer” itself, could arguably inspire copycats. But we have to acknowledge the limits on what technology can do. Even if Facebook removed the video in three seconds, it is apparent that for thousands of users, the first impulse is to download and re-upload upsetting content rather than report it. This is evident in the fact that the victim’s grandson, Ryan, took to a different social network – Twitter – to ask people to stop sharing the video. It took nearly two hours for anyone to report the video to Facebook - it took seconds for people to download a copy for themselves and share it on.  

When we ignore these realities and beg Facebook to act, we embolden the moral crusade of surveillance. The UK government has a pattern of using tragedy to justify invasions into our privacy and security, most recently when home secretary Amber Rudd suggested that Whatsapp should remove its encryption after it emerged the Westminster attacker used the service. We cannot at once bemoan Facebook’s power in the world and simultaneously beg it to take total control. When you ask Facebook to review all of the content of all of its billions of users, you are asking for a God.

This is particularly undesirable in light of the good that shocking Facebook videos can do – however gruesome. Invaluable evidence is often provided in these clips, be they filmed by criminals themselves or their victims. When Philando Castile’s girlfriend Facebook live-streamed the aftermath of his shooting by a police officer during a traffic stop, it shed international light on police brutality in America and aided the charging of the officer in question. This clip would never have been seen if Facebook had total control of the videos uploaded to its site.  

We need to stop blaming Facebook for things it can’t yet change, when we should focus on things it can. In 2016, the site was criticised for: allowing racial discrimination via its targeted advertising; invading privacy with its facial-scanning; banning breast cancer-awareness videos; avoiding billions of dollars in tax; and tracking non-users activity across the web. Facebook should be under scrutiny for its repeated violations of its users’ privacy, not for hosting violent content – a criticism that will just give the site an excuse to violate people's privacy even further.

No one blames cars for the recent spate of vehicular terrorist attacks in Europe, and no one should blame Facebook for the Cleveland killer. Ultimately, we should accept that the social network is just a vehicle. The one to blame is the person driving.

If you have accidentally viewed upsetting and/or violent footage on social media that has affected you, call the Samaritans helpline on  116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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