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. 

ILONA WELLMANN/MILLENNIUM IMAGES, UK
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How the internet has democratised pornography

With people now free to circumvent the big studios, different bodies, tastes and even pubic hair styles are being represented online.

Our opinions and tastes are influenced by the media we consume: that much is obvious. But although it’s easy to have that conversation if the medium we are discussing is “safe for work”, pornography carries so much stigma that we only engage with it on simple terms. Porn is either “good” or “bad”: a magical tool for ­empowerment or a destructive influence on society. Many “pro-porn” campaigners shy away from nuanced critique, fearing it could lead to censorship. “Anti-porn” campaigners, convinced that porn is harmful by definition, need look no further than the mainstream tube sites – essentially, aggregators of clips from elsewhere – to gather examples that will back them up.

When we talk about the influence of porn, the emphasis is usually on a particular type of video – hardcore sex scenes featuring mostly slim, pubic-hairless women and faceless men: porn made for men about women. This kind of porn is credited with everything from the pornification of pop music to changing what we actually do in bed. Last year the UK government released a policy note that suggested porn was responsible for a rise in the number of young people trying anal sex. Although the original researcher, Cicely Marston, pointed out that there was no clear link between the two, the note prompted a broad debate about the impact of porn. But in doing so, we have already lost – by accepting a definition of “porn” shaped less by our desires than by the dominant players in the industry.

On the day you read this, one single site, PornHub, will get somewhere between four and five million visits from within the UK. Millions more will visit YouPorn, Tube8, Redtube or similar sites. It’s clear that they’re influential. Perhaps less clear is that they are not unbiased aggregators: they don’t just reflect our tastes, they shape what we think and how we live. We can see this even in simple editorial decisions such as categorisation: PornHub offers 14 categories by default, including anal, threesome and milf (“mum I’d like to f***”), and then “For Women” as a separate category. So standard is it for mainstream sites to assume their audience is straight and male that “point of view” porn has become synonymous with “top-down view of a man getting a blow job”. Tropes that have entered everyday life – such as shaved pubic hair – abound here.

Alongside categories and tags, tube sites also decide what you see at the top of their results and on the home page. Hence the videos you see at the top tend towards escalation to get clicks: biggest gang bang ever. Dirtiest slut. Horniest milf. To find porn that doesn’t fit this mould you must go out of your way to search for it. Few people do, of course, so the clickbait gets promoted more frequently, and this in turn shapes what we click on next time. Is it any wonder we’ve ended up with such a narrow definition of porn? In reality, the front page of PornHub reflects our desires about as accurately as the Daily Mail “sidebar of shame” reflects Kim Kardashian.

Perhaps what we need is more competition? All the sites I have mentioned are owned by the same company – MindGeek. Besides porn tube sites, MindGeek has a stake in other adult websites and production companies: Brazzers, Digital Playground, Twistys, PornMD and many more. Even tube sites not owned by MindGeek, such as Xhamster, usually follow the same model: lots of free content, plus algorithms that chase page views aggressively, so tending towards hardcore clickbait.

Because porn is increasingly defined by these sites, steps taken to tackle its spread often end up doing the opposite of what was intended. For instance, the British government’s Digital Economy Bill aims to reduce the influence of porn on young people by forcing porn sites to age-verify users, but will in fact hand more power to large companies. The big players have the resources to implement age verification easily, and even to use legislation as a way to expand further into the market. MindGeek is already developing age-verification software that can be licensed to other websites; so it’s likely that, when the bill’s rules come in, small porn producers will either go out of business or be compelled to license software from the big players.

There are glimmers of hope for the ethical porn consumer. Tube sites may dominate search results, but the internet has also helped revolutionise porn production. Aspiring producers and performers no longer need a contract with a studio – all that’s required is a camera and a platform to distribute their work. That platform might be their own website, a dedicated cam site, or even something as simple as Snapchat.

This democratisation of porn has had positive effects. There’s more diversity of body shape, sexual taste and even pubic hair style on a cam site than on the home page of PornHub. Pleasure takes a more central role, too: one of the most popular “games” on the webcam site Chaturbate is for performers to hook up sex toys to the website, with users paying to try to give them an orgasm. Crucially, without a studio, performers can set their own boundaries.

Kelly Pierce, a performer who now works mostly on cam, told me that one of the main benefits of working independently is a sense of security. “As long as you put time in you know you are going to make money doing it,” she said. “You don’t spend your time searching for shoots, but actually working towards monetary gain.” She also has more freedom in her work: “You have nobody to answer to but yourself, and obviously your fans. Sometimes politics comes into play when you work for others than yourself.”

Cam sites are also big business, and the next logical step in the trickle-down of power is for performers to have their own distribution platforms. Unfortunately, no matter how well-meaning your indie porn project, the “Adult” label makes it most likely you’ll fail. Mainstream payment providers won’t work with adult businesses, and specialist providers take a huge cut of revenue. Major ad networks avoid porn, so the only advertising option is to sign up to an “adult” network, which is probably owned by a large porn company and will fill your site with bouncing-boob gifs and hot milfs “in your area”: exactly the kind of thing you’re trying to fight against. Those who are trying to take on the might of Big Porn need not just to change what we watch, but challenge what we think porn is, too.

The internet has given the porn industry a huge boost – cheaper production and distribution, the potential for more variety, and an influence that it would be ridiculous to ignore. But in our failure properly to analyse the industry, we are accepting a definition of porn that has been handed to us by the dominant players in the market.

Girl on the Net writes one of the UK’s most popular sex blogs: girlonthenet.com

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times