Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is seen in a photo taken by the Rosetta spacecraft, 6 August. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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
Show Hide image

The science and technology committee debacle shows how we're failing women in tech

It would be funny if it wasn’t so depressing.

Five days after Theresa May announced, in her first Prime Minister’s Questions after the summer recess, that she was "particularly keen to address the stereotype about women in engineering", an all-male parliamentary science and technology committee was announced. You would laugh if it wasn’t all so depressing.

It was only later, after a fierce backlash against the selection, that Conservative MP Vicky Ford was also appointed to the committee. I don’t need to say that having only one female voice represents more than an oversight: it’s simply unacceptable. And as if to rub salt into the wound, at the time of writing, Ford has still not been added to the committee list on parliament's website.

To the credit of Norman Lamb, the Liberal Democrat MP who was elected chair of the committee in July, he said that he didn't "see how we can proceed without women". "It sends out a dreadful message at a time when we need to convince far more girls to pursue Stem [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] subjects," he added. But as many people have pointed out already, it’s the parties who nominate members, and that’s partly why this scenario is worrying. The nominations are a representation of those who represent us.

Government policy has so far completely failed to tap into the huge pool of talented women we have in this country – and there are still not enough women in parliament overall.

Women cannot be considered an afterthought, and in the case of the science and technology committee they have quite clearly been treated as such. While Ford will be a loud and clear voice on the committee, one person alone can’t address the major failings of government policy in improving conditions for women in science and technology.

Study after study has shown why it is essential for the UK economy that women participate in the labour force. And in Stem, where there is undeniably a strong anti-female bias and yet a high demand for people with specialist skills, it is even more pressing.

According to data from the Women’s Engineering Society, 16 per cent of UK Stem undergraduates are female. That statistic illustrates two things. First, that there is clearly a huge problem that begins early in the lives of British women, and that this leads to woefully low female representation on Stem university courses. Secondly, unless our society dramatically changes the way it thinks about women and Stem, and thereby encourages girls to pursue these subjects and careers, we have no hope of addressing the massive shortage in graduates with technical skills.

It’s quite ironic that the Commons science and technology committee recently published a report stating that the digital skills gap was costing the UK economy £63bn a year in lost GDP.

Read more: Why does the science and technology committee have no women – and a climate sceptic?

Female representation in Stem industries wasn’t addressed at all in the government’s Brexit position paper on science, nor was it dealt with in any real depth in the digital strategy paper released in April. In fact, in the 16-page Brexit position paper, the words "women", "female" and "diversity" did not appear once. And now, with the appointment of the nearly all-male committee, it isn't hard to see why.

Many social issues still affect women, not only in Stem industries but in the workplace more broadly. From the difficulties facing mothers returning to work after having children, to the systemic pay inequality that women face across most sectors, it is clear that there is still a vast amount of work to be done by this government.

The committee does not represent the scientific community in the UK, and is fundamentally lacking in the diversity of thought and experience necessary to effectively scrutinise government policy. It leads you to wonder which century we’re living in. Quite simply, this represents a total failure of democracy.

Pip Wilson is a tech entrepreneur, angel investor and CEO of amicable