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One day to go…

Tomorrow is a truly historic day for the European Space Agency, and, in a way, for all of us. Spaceprobes have flown past comets before, and sent back pictures of their bizarre, cratered, icy surfaces before heading off back into the dark depths of space, but tomorrow is different. Tomorrow, after after a decade long journey of almost 7 billion kilometres, the ESA probe ROSETTA will go into orbit around a comet, and soon after will start to send back high resolution images of its surface. For the first time in human history we will get to truly know a comet, to look into its dead, icy eyes and know the secrets hidden in its frozen, ancient soul.

And just a couple of hours ago, ESA released its latest NAVCAM image of 67P. It’s the most detailed image so far, as you can see…

ESA_ROSETTA_NAVCAM_20140804_cropped_interpolatedx2

Look at that…! Let’s take a closer look, and try to bring out some surface detail with a little sharpening and enhancing…

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Oh, there is SO much to see on there! It’s going to be fascinating seeing the pictures tomorrow! Let’s be cheeky and speculate a little on what we might be seeing… craters? (brown circles) and fields of scattered boulders? (grey circles)…

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All will become clear tomorrow, I’m sure.

ROSETTA’s mission began a decade ago, but Mankind’s curious relationship with comets goes back centuries, if not thousands of years. Over the centuries we have been terrified of them, then puzzled by them, and are now curious about and fascinated by them. In past times, the appearance of a bright comet in the sky was greeted with fear and dread. Many people believed that if a bright comet appeared in the dawn or dusk sky, plague, war or famine would follow. We can laugh at that now, but yourself in their shoes. Centuries ago, the night sky was as familiar a landscape to you as the fields, hills and streams around your village or town. With no light pollution to ruin your view of it, the night sky was a blaze of stars, of different brightnesses and colour, all arranged in patterns that you knew, and recognised, and greeted like long lost friends when the passing of the seasons brought them back into your sky. You knew the sky, it was a comforting constant in your often difficult life.  It didn’t surprise you, or change, like people did. You KNEW it. You could RELY on it.

Occasionally something new would appear on it, and that would set your pulse racing, just briefly, but only briefly because after it had gone the sky would return to normal. A bright shooting star, or a fireball, skating across the sky would make the breath catch in your throat, but its flight would only last for a heartbeat and then the sky would be the same as before, nothing missing, nothing added. You would know that at certain times of the year the sky would weep shooting stars – an event we call a meteor shower today – but it wouldn’t concern you. It was just a light show, and after t had finished the sky would still be full of stars…

You would be used to seeing  bright planets moving through the constellations, even if you didn’t know what they were. You would greet the appearance of the Evening or Morning Stars warmly, and enjoy gazing at them as you worked before dawn or after sunset. The ruddy spark of Mars would catch your eye, a garnet drifting across the sky, and you might ponder on its colour, wondering of it really was the blood-soaked God of War preparing to do battle again, but it would be no great cause for concern…

And then, one morning, as you went out to tend your animals or check your crops, you would see something… different in the sky. Something new. Something that hadn’t been there the previous morning: a star, low above the horizon, with a short, fuzzy trail behind it, no longer than the nail of your finger if held out at arm’s length. You would stand there, staring at it, wondering what it was, but as the sky brightened it would fade from view until it was lost, and with the next few morninmgs cloudy, or rain-soaked, you would put it out of your mind…

…but then, the next clear morning, you would see it again – and it had changed. Now it looked… frightening. The star was brighter, much brighter, and the tail trailing behind it, pointing up away from the horizon, was brighter, straighter, and as long as your longest finger. Now it looked like a dagger in the morning sky. Something was wrong in the heavens, surely? Surely that was a sign?

And then, a week later, it would dominate the eastern sky before dawn. Its starry head now as bright as Jupiter, or even Venus, would outshine all the other stars around it, and its tail now looked like a glowing banner unfurled behind it. As long as your arm, and as bright as a sunbeam, the stranger now looked less like a mere dagger and more like a sword, pointing at the Sun, challenging it, threatening it. Threatening YOU…

When faced with such a terrifying intruder in their oh-so-familiar sky, is it any wonder the people of times past viewed comets with such distrust and terror? If you saw something like that in your dawn sky, and you later heard about a terrible battle in a neighbouring land, or a dreadful famine, or plague, or the death of a king or queen, who could blame you for adding two and two and getting five, and blaming the comet for what had happened? And who could blame you if, the next time a comet appeared in your sky, you wondered if it had brought its own plague, or war, or disaster?As time passed we became less superstitious about comets, and learned to study them rather than fear them. We came to realise that comets were innocent of all past charges, and were mere interplanetary wanderers made of ice, rock and dust, no more responsible for wars, plagues or earthquakes than the planets themselves were. Well, most of us came to realise that. Even today some people insist on greeting the appearance of a new comet with idiotic predictions of death and disaster, only now they can spread their lunatic predictions over the internet. Every time a comet is discovered, nutters, idiots and crazies latch on to it and predict all kinds of ridiculous things. “It will knock Earth out of orbit!” some scream. “It will trigger huge storms on the Sun!” others wail. “It will spread space plagues across the Earth!” yet others gibber, on their ridiculous conspiracy theory blogs, forums and Facebook pages. Inevitably some will insist the new comet is “Nibiru”, the totally made up “Tenth Planet” or “Second Sun” which generations of professional astronomers have failed to detect yet has been seen plainly (and photographed! With a mobile phone!) by crystal-hugging, tie-dyed X-Files obsessed losers, and they will stamp their feet and bawl with anger if anyone tries to tell them otherwise. It’s very sad, but just part of modern life now. In the old days, the village idiots would shout their crazy stories at passers by. Today they put them on YouTube or on conspiracy theory forums.

But away from the fantasy world of the Armageddonutters, comets now fascinate us more than they scare us, which is why, ten years ago, Rosetta set off on its incredible journey. 7 billion kilometres later it is finally closing in on its target, Comet 67P, and by this time tomorrow it will (all being well!) be in orbit around it and will start to reveal its secrets. It has been sending back images for some time already, and tomorrow we are all hoping that the teams in charge of ROSETTA’s cameras release lots of new images, showing the crater in all its glory. There is going to be a live webcast of ROSETTA’s “arrival” tomorrow morning (from 9am UK time, 8am across Europe) which should be very exciting, and during the course of that broadcast we should see the comet’s surface in detail for the first time. It is going to be a very exciting day!

But things will get even more exciting later this year when a small lander, “Philae”, falls away from Rosetta and attempts the first landing on a comet. If it succeeds it should send back wonderful images of the comet’s  surface FROM the surface, beaming back portraits of an alien landscape the likes of which have never been seen before.

I can only imagine how nervous the ROSETTA team is right now, as the last few hours – and last few hundred kilometres – tick away. Tomorrow, the world will be watching them, very closely. ROSETTA is probably ESA’s highest prifile mission yet, but not only is the Rosetta mission an incredible technical and engineering achievement, it is important to us all. It is important it succeeds,  for each and every man, woman and child on the planet.

Because although we now know comets don’t trigger earthquakes, or herald the death of kings, or bring war, we know that they pose a risk to Earth on a much larger scale. Thanks to generations of telescopic and space probe study, we now know that comets are not just fascinating objects dating back to the birth of the solar system, but are potential missiles too. We know that they have struck other planets out there in the past – we saw one, or fragments of one, pummel Jupiter in 1994 – and we know that there may come a day when our own world is found to be at threat, when a comet is discovered on a collision course with Earth. That day might not dawn for a hundred years, or it might be next Wednesday. But whenever it happens, one day we will learn that a comet is heading right for us, and, sorry to break this to you, but in the real world giving Bruce Willis and his crack team of handsome, sweaty oil well workers a call isn’t an option. But We Will Need To Do Something. And so, the more we can learn about comets before then, the better. So although Rosetta is going to revolutionise cometary science – revealing how comets evolve and change as they orbit the Sun, telling us what they are made of,  etc – it will also, hopefully, allow us to at least start to consider how best to cope with the approach of a threatening come in the future.

So, tomorrow is the big day! As I said earlier, if you want to follow the action, ESA will be broadcasting ROSETTA’s arrival at 67P with a live webcast, and there should be at least a few new pictures – hopefully lots! – for us to enjoy drooling over. By this time tomorrow night we should even have our first maps of 67P, and maybe even a few informal nicknames for its craters, peaks and ridges. Can’t wait! Although I’ll probably get my first view of those images whilst sitting in a MacDonalds in Edinburgh, dripping wet, it will still be fun! 🙂

One last thought for today. A hundred years ago today, Europe was preparing to fling itself into the most brutal war ever known. There were – as far as I know – no bright comets in the sky to blame for the outbreak of World War I, no signs written in the sky as the continent prepared to tear itself apart, as all across Europe countries were condemning other countries, hatred and fury were building, and the future seemed very bleak indeed. Within months men and boys would be dying in their tens of thousands, slogging across muddy battlefields all across the continent. During lulls in those awful battles,  when the shells stopped falling, the machine guns fell silent, and the screams of the wounded finally faded away, many of those soldiers on both sides – particularly those who came from small towns and villages in the countryside – must have looked up at the starry sky above the cratered battlefields and wondered what the future would bring. Would Europe be under the heels of dictators? Would there even *be* a Europe left after the war, or would it be a desolate wasteland?

I think they would be glad to know that Europe didn’t just survive, it prospered and grew strong and proud. I think they would be proud to know that in the future those men and boys fought for, we didn’t just turn swords into ploughshares, we turned them into amazing machines which flew from our hands like doves, and went on to fly between the planets, beautiful metal butterflies sending back breathtaking pictures of places so alien, so bizarre that the brave men who fought and died in those trenches could not even imagine them.

I think they would be proud to know that today, a hundred years after the horns of war were blaring across Europe, a European machine, designed, built, launched and now operated by men and women from all across Europe, is about to make history. And they would be glad to know, I’m sure, that today our enemies aren’t our neighbours, they are ignorance and fear. Today the prize is not domination over others, but knowledge, gained for the whole of mankind.

Godspeed Rosetta. We’re all behind you. And we know that tomorrow you’ll make all of us proud.

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One Response

  1. […] SLS, das auch viele CubeSats mitnehmen soll. [15:50 MESZ – Ende. NACHTRAG: zu Rosettas Ankunft auch dieser Artikel – und wie dieses Blog erfahren hat, werden morgen Punkt 11:30 MESZ umwerfende OSIRIS-Bilder von […]

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