Wakey wakey. Image: ESA
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After seven months in hibernation on a comet, the space probe Philae has woken up

ESA's space probe Philae has awoken on comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko after seven months in hibernation. 

On November 12, 2014, Rosetta ejected the dishwasher-sized, tendril-like limbed Philae into the quiet abyss of space. Its mission: to land on a comet with feeble gravity that moves 40 times the speed of a bullet:

Rosetta’s OSIRIS narrow-angle camera shows the Philae lander at 10:23 GMT (onboard spacecraft time) on 12 November, almost two hours after separation. Image: ESA

In a bid to become the new hero of new-age space technology, Philae, despite its harpoons malfunctioning, and despite its bumpy landings, found itself miraculously wedged in a rocky crevice on comet 67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Its rather fortunate position sent back (via Rosetta) some intriguing images of the comet’s shadowed surface:

A spot on the comet's surface before it landed is empty (left) and then after the landing a new blip appeared (middle and right). Image: ESA

A cosmic power was on Philae’s side that day. Had the trajectory of the bounce(s) been a few kilometres too high, and/or had Philae’s harpoons tried to pierce into comet 67P's harder-than-expected icy subsurface, Philae might have not made history.

On 15 November, the 500m km distance between Philae and the Sun became a little too long to handle. Soon after the champagne popped upon Philae's landing, its batteries began rapidly depleting because there was not enough sunlight needed to recharge them.

The engineers of European Space Agency (ESA) were, behind the smiles, all too aware of this, and before its termination, commanded Philae to rotate enough to get one of its solar panels into sunlight. It helped. Like a hedgehog with a belly swollen with food, it protected itself from the cold winter months ahead, by going into hibernation.

The hope was as the comet rotates towards the Sun, Philae would get enough solar energy through its panels to wake as the Sun rises. 

On Saturday at 20:28 UTC, at a distance from the Sun of about 200m km, Philae woke up! The signal from the lander (via Rosetta) was received by the European Space Operation Centre. Philae will make its closest encounter to the Sun on 13 August.  

"Philae is doing very well: It has an operating temperature of -35ºC and has 24 Watts available," explained DLR Philae Project Manager Dr Stephan Ulamec. "The lander is ready for operations."

According to ESA, Philae "spoke" with its team on ground for 85 seconds, via Rosetta, in the first contact since going into hibernation in November. When analysing the status data, it became clear to the ESA team that Philae also must have been awake earlier: "We have also received historical data – so far, however, the lander had not been able to contact us earlier," Ulamec added.

Due to the ESA astronomers' unwavering resilience, the Rosetta mission is the first ever to orbit a comet. Philae is the first lander to touch down on a cometary surface, and the first to wake from slumber on a speeding comet.

The scenes on comet 67P last November filled viewers with joy and fear – from Philae landing on the comet, to Philae bouncing off the comet due to the malfunctioned harpoons and consequently losing signal with Rosetta mission control. 

When Professor Mark McCaughrean, ESA’s Senior Science Adviser, heard Philae had woken up, it was half past ten at night and he and his colleagues couldn't sleep because of the excitement, he tells me. When the word finally got out to the media, the public went “nuts”, he adds.

The scientists are now waiting for the next contact with Philae. More than 8,000 data packets remain in Philae’s mass memory that will give the DLR team information on what happened to the lander in the past few days on the comet.

For now, Philae’s health will be examined. New data is expected to be sent which will hopefully include the exact location of Philae. That’ll give engineers the best methods to deal with the lander’s orientation, as well as to continue the Rosetta mission – a mission in which its prime objective is to understand the origin and evolution of the Solar System.

For more updates and current info, follow the ESA's Rosetta blog.

Tosin Thompson writes about science and was the New Statesman's 2015 Wellcome Trust Scholar. 

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“Like a lorry hitting you in the face”: When flashing gifs trigger seizures

Sufferers are urging social media users to think before they share.

Last week Lizzie Huxley-Jones stood stock still in her kitchen, unable to remember how to make a sandwich.  

“It’s like you’ve lost the instructions,” the 28-year-old tells me. “It's like you go to do a task and the file is missing for how you complete it… and you're like ‘Oh God, I don’t even remember how I do this’,” she says – referring to making a sandwich or a cup of tea. “It’s like a complete and utter sudden loss of independence.”

Lizzie is discussing the after-effects of having a seizure. A book blogger who lives in London, she is autistic and suffers from non-epileptic seizures (NES), also known as dissociative seizures. After her most recent seizure, she experienced eleven days of after-effects, including twitches, a loss of mobility, and aphasia (difficulty recalling words). Though Lizzie felt its repercussions for over a week, the seizure itself was just a few minutes long – and was caused by something that lasted only a second.

A brightly-coloured flashing gif of cats.

“It sounds pretty cutesy,” admits Lizzie, who saw the gif on the social network Twitter, “but it was very fast so what happened is I looked at it and then almost immediately went into a seizure. Luckily I was on my couch already but if I'd been elsewhere I could have just dropped.” No one was around to help her, but her dog – Nerys – comforted Lizzie by falling asleep on her lap.

Lizzie and Nerys

It is commonly acknowledged that certain gifs can cause seizures for people with photosensitive epilepsy. Just three per cent of epileptics suffer with photosensitivity – meaning flashing or flickering lights induce their seizures. Triggers include everything from ceiling fans, interactive whiteboards, and Christmas tree lights as well as, of course, gifs.

“Any flashing image between 5-25 Hertz (flashes per second) has the potential to trigger a seizure in someone who is photosensitive, although this is very rare,” says Professor Ley Sander, a medical director at the Epilepsy Society and professor of neurology at University College London. “People who are photosensitive should be very cautious when online as the internet and social media are full of flashing images.”

The account that tweeted the cat gif meant no harm, and went on to delete it after Lizzie and her friends asked for its removal. Lizzie describes the recent seizure as like a “sparking” in her brain and says that afterwards the pain was “like you've been hit by a lorry specifically to your face.” Though these consequences were accidental, many seizure-inducing gifs are deliberately designed to damage.

In March, a man was charged with aggravated assault after sending a flashing tweet to epileptic journalist Kurt Eichenwald which read: “YOU DESERVE A SEIZURE FOR YOUR POSTS.” Back in 2008, the charity Epilepsy Foundation was forced to shut down its message boards after internet users flooded them with flashing gifs. Lizzie says that on Twitter, people search for those who mention seizures in their tweets or bios, and deliberately send them strobing gifs.

Yet many online also refuse to believe sufferers like Eichenwald, because photosensitivity is rare and gifs have to flash at a certain rate to be a trigger. For Lizzie, this stigma is exacerbated by the fact that her seizures – which are non-epileptic (dissociative) – were once called “pseudo-seizures” by medical professionals.

“Dissociative seizures happen for psychological reasons rather than physical ones,” says Chantal Spittles of Epilepsy Action. While epileptic seizures occur because of abnormal electrical activity in the brain, NES are triggered by thoughts and feelings.

“It can be really tough to be told you have dissociative seizures. This is especially true if you have spent years thinking you have epilepsy. However, dissociative seizures are a real medical condition. And the dissociative seizures you experience can be just as disruptive or unsettling as epileptic seizures,” explains Spittles.

Professor Sander says it is “very hard to say” whether gifs can trigger non-epileptic seizures but for Lizzie, this is simply her reality. She believes that the stigma and lack of funding around NES mean that not enough is known about photosensitivity rates in NES sufferers. Anecdotally, she claims many with NES are triggered by flashing bike lights, like herself.   

“People don't believe or they don't think it's serious at all, it's almost like they think you've got a headache,” she says. “[It] starts to play on your mind that no one thinks this is real and everyone thinks you must be a liar.”

Regardless of the stigma, Lizzie – who lost a friend to SUDEP (sudden death in epilepsy) earlier this year – wants to raise awareness of the damage gifs can cause for epileptic and non-epileptic seizure sufferers, as well as people with autism (like herself) and photosensitive migraines. “It's sad that people don't think about it but I mean, I grew up with an epileptic sibling and an epileptic uncle, so my whole life has been spent thinking about this,” she says.

So which gifs are best avoided? Lizzie says to think before sharing any that change colour or change contrast (from light to dark) very quickly, as well as gifs with psychedelic colours and patterns. Spittles says most people with photosensitive epilepsy are sensitive to 16-25 Hertz, though some are sensitive to rates as low as 3 Hertz or as high as 60 Hertz.

Many might think the onus is on Lizzie and the journalist Eichenwald to change their computer settings so gifs don’t auto-play (Epilepsy Action has guidance on how to do this). Nonetheless, Lizzie believes it is imperative for people to think before they share a gif, and Epilepsy Action is now working with Twitter to improve reporting procedures should any targeted attacks occur in the future. In the meantime, Lizzie simply asks for a safer, less ableist internet experience. “We have a responsibility in our communication online to make it as accessible as possible,” she says.  

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

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