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Sleep well, little one…

It’s coming up to 8am on Saturday morning, and I’m tapping away again after just 5 hours sleep. I could – should – have slept in, but I really wanted to get up and record the events of last night while they’re still (relatively) fresh in my mind. While I can do them justice.

Last night I was one of countless thousands of people all around the world who followed Philae’s last hours online, via Twitter. It was an ordeal, and an honour, to be able to watch – well, read – History being made, and was, I think, one of Twitter’s finest hours, especially for the scientific community. Twitter gets a lot of flack, sometimes rightly so. Too many people use it to cause misery for others, Tweeting insults and hurtful comments, and generally being low life pieces of scum, Trolling people when they are hurting and in need of help. But last night Twitter was a force for good, and an absolutely invaluable source of information, linking people all around the globe and allowing them to have front row seats as one of the most exciting, most inspiring chapters in the story of space exploration to date came to an end. We were able to sit in our lounges or bedrooms, in our offices and libraries, on our buses and walking along the street, and follow what was happening with Philae almost in real time by following Tweets being made by reporters covering Philae’s last hours, by ESA, and even by Philae itself. It was a wonderful, distressing, heartwarming, tear-jerking night, and I feel priviliged that I was part of it.

So, what happened?

Last night we all gathered online to sit and wait for Philae to phone home and start sending back the science data she had been gathering during the day, but there was no guarantee it would do that; having landed way off course, in the dark shadow of a cliff, or maybe even in a hole some thought, its solar panels had been starved of light, so it was going to be a race against time to see if it could send back all its precious data before going into hibernation. There was a very real possibility that some of the readings, measurements and information she had gathered – that in itself an incredible, against the odds achievement – would be lost if Philae fell asleep before having a chance to send it, so as we all sat here waiting for Philae to “phone home” around 9pm last night everyone was a bag of nerves. During the day the decision had been taken to tell Philae to use its drill to try and collect a sample of the comet and bring it onboard for analysis, an act which itself might have sent the unsecured lander bouncing back off into space. And it had also been decided that if that move worked, Philae would be commanded to try and move itself, rotating into a different position which would allow more sunlight to fall onto its energy-starved solar panels. Unbelievable, just unbelievable. But there was no other choice. Philae was, possibly, dying, so it was worth trying anything.

Sometimes these things simply come down to someone, somewhere, taking a stand against those urging caution and safety, taking a deep breath and saying, with bold resolve, “Ok, just do it…” Sometimes that ends badly, but sometimes the universe smiles on the brave, bold soul making the decision and rewards them, either with complete success or more usually just with a little more time than they would have had. Last night, someone, somewhere, made The Call to use Philae’s drill, and to get Philae to try and right itself, and the universe smiled on them: the drill worked, Philae righted itself, and the scientists back on Earth got almost everything they had asked for before Philae fell asleep. Exactly how it will work out now we can’t know, but as I write this Philae is in hibernation on comet 67P, job well done, enjoying a well-earned rest. It might wake up again – it might wake up later today! – or it might not, we’ll have to wait and see, but either way the lander’s mission was a staggering success, and everyone involved should feel very, very proud this morning.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, letting my words and my memories run away with me.

So, we were all sat here last night (UK time) at our computers, or with our laptops on our knees, or holding our tablets, or scrolling on our smartphones, following events through Twitter or Facebook, and the wait for Philae to phone home seemed to go on for an age. The time for the communication window with Philae to open came, and went – what a drama queen – but eventually the lander phoned home, and the data started flowing back. When that happened, oh, there was much rejoicing, and a real mood of excitement and optimism took hold as science reporters embedded at ESOC – and here I have to give special shout outs to two, the BBC’s own Jonathan Amos, and the Planetary Society’s Emily Lakdawalla, who were simply fantastic over the last few days, reporting EVERYTHING they possibly could quickly, concisely and profesionally – informed us what was happening. Philae itself posted an apology on Twitter…


And so the data flowed back to Earth, showing that Philae had managed to carry out almost all of its science while it had been out of touch. Sadly, one instrument, a spectrometer, had failed because its lens cap had not come off – while everyone else is celebrating, that team must be feeling absolutely wretched this morning, poor souls – but everything else seemed to have worked well, but the effort to carry out all that science had left Philae weak and tired, and once it was clear that Philae was basically running on fumes it was commanded to try and move itself into a better position in order to save it – a daring decision, as I said, for if, as I and many others have suggested, the Philae landing was Europe’s “Apollo 11 Moment”, then this attempt to right the lander was surely Europe’s “Apollo 13 Moment”, an attempt to try and save the lander’s mission by putting Philae into such a position that if it did go into forced hibernation it would be able to recharge itself during its nap and come back to life again. But the effort of making Philae move would drain so much power from the lander’s batteries that it might *send* it into hibernation, so it was a real leap in the dark. A long-shot, but worth trying.

So we waited again…

And then…


WOOHOO!!!! It had worked!! Philae had moved itself into a better orientation! There was a chance that its life on the surface of the comet could be extended! Maybe it had moved far enough out of that cliff’s shadow that it now had an unobscured view of the surface, and could see the Great Crater (if that’s where it eventually landed, no-one knows yet) stretching across its field of view, and the comet’s jets shooting into the sky in the distance…

But with the lander’s power levels going down there was now a race against time to get all the data off the lander and safely back to Earth. The clock was ticking, possibly for the last time.

So we waited again…

As the minutes passed more and more data came wandering home, like lost sheep returning to a pen, and the mission’s scientists’ smiles were broad and wonderful. Philae just kept going and going, sending back more and more data, and one of its instruments (a British one, yaaay!) even Tweeted…


You can imagine that, can’t you! Philae bravely chirruping away, sending back data, while on Earth her scientists, the reporters following the mission and countless thousands of us had to recharge our computers, laptops and phones…!

And yes, we began to think that maybe, just maybe, Philae had done enough to keep going without a spell in hibernation…

But then…

dropping 3

Oh no…. that graph showed Philae’s power levels dropping off a cliff… !! ūüė¶ Time was finally running out… and lots of hands went to mouths in despair as the lander Tweeted…


But STILL the plucky lander kept sending data back, including the so precious data gathered by the laboratory analysing the sample of material gathered from the surface. But the writing was on the wall, and Philae wrote home…


Here on Earth many people were now feeling genuinely upset about Philae’s imminent passing. I know, I know, it’s only a machine, built from wires, and metal, and silicon chips, but we embrace these machines and become attached to them because they are MORE than machines, they represent not only years – decades – of work, but they represent our silly, arrogant, selfish, self-destructive species at its very best, so when one stops working, fading away before our eyes, well, it… hurts… and last night, as Philae’s eyes grew dim and its birdlike heartbeat began to flutter and slow, it was a very tough time, I’ll admit. ESA responded to Philae’s Tweet with one of their own…


Oh no…..!!! How could they DO that to us??????/

Philae slowly got weaker and weaker, and soon it was clear that the end was nigh, and we read the following with heavy hearts and watery eyes…

last chat

And we waited, again, as 300 million miles away, sitting alone in the dark, in the shadow of a cliff, on the frozen, desolate surface of a comet, Philae’s head started to nod and its eyes started to close.There was one last, heart-wrenching exchange between Philae and Earth…

philae esa bye

..eventually, Philae stopped sending back data, and just sent back housekeeping telemetry. It was almost gone.

And then, finally, silence. Philae stopped transmitting, and the the link with Earth was broken. The lander had fallen asleep, and was now in hibernation, on standby like a TV or a DVD player. Chris Lintott, astronomer and presenter of the BBC’s SKY AT NIGHT, who had been at ESOC from before landing day, faithfully following and reporting on every twist and turn of the mission, Tweeted…

lintott bye

The end had come.

Those of us watching went through a real mixture of feelings then. Initially it was easy, and natural, to feel crushing disappointment and cheated too: the lander had come down in a hideous place, way off course, and on its side, so hadn’t been able to take the breathtaking panoramic photos we had been looking forward to for so long. But no, that was the wrong way of looking at things. Yes, Philae had fallen silent, and might not wake again, but despite its dire situation it had done almost everything asked of it, and had sent back all the data it had been asked to collect. It was a triumph, not a tragedy, and we should be celebrating, not mourning…! At ESOC the lander team were smiling, gathering for photos, and celebrating a brief life well lived…

good night philae

But still, as much as our heads told us that was the right thing to do, our hearts were heavy.

That was it.

Or.. was it?

It’s now the Morning After, and let’s be optimistic! There’s a chance that in the past few hours, while it’s been out of contact with Earth, Philae, in its new position (hopefully in more sunlight, we don’t know that yet) has been recharging, and might now have enough juice to let it phone home later today when another comms window with Earth opens up. Again, that’s a long-shot, but it’s possible, we’ll just have to cross our fingers and hope for the best.

I’ll end this post with my own little tribute to Philae. This is something¬† made yesterday afternoon, when it was becoming clear that Philae was probably going to go into hibernation that evening. I hope you like it.


Whatever happens now, three things are clear. Firstly, Philae’s mission was a HUGE success, and anyone who claims otherwise is talking rubbish. No doubt there will be reporters spouting absolute *crap* today, bleating about how Philae failed, and worse. Oh, shut up. Shut UP. We landed a probe on a comet, you idiots.. on a ***** comet! … and it disected it scientifically. Ok, the landing didn’t go exactly as planned, but the probe DID land, and it sent back great images and almost ALL the data it had been sent to gather, which will keep cometary scientists working for years and will completely revolutionise our understanding of comets.

Secondly, the mission isn’t over! Cheer up, everyone! ROSETTA is still orbiting 67P and will be taking breathtaking photos for another YEAR! We’re just getting started! We’re going to see the comet burst into life over the coming months, as it falls towards the Sun. I have no doubt that ESA will keep releasing those beautiful navcam images and showing us 67P’s spectacular cliffs, craters and jets in all their glory. There’s that to look forward to.

And finally, it’s important to recognise what a game-changer this has been for ESA. Criticised – rightly – in the past for being basically RUBBISH at PR and Outreach, ESA has not just stepped but leaped into a new era with ROSETTA, transforming itself into an Outreach giant, sharing its science with The People. This is a new ESA, an ESA everyone in Europe can and should be proud of. I know I am. It’s a shame that one element of the ROSETTA mission, namely the OSIRIS camera team, hasn’t supported the mission as well as it should have done, hording their images and flatly refusing to engage with the public before the landing, but maybe, just maybe, they’ll take notice of the huge interest the public has shown in the landing and turn over a new leaf. They have missed out on SO much excitement because of their attitude. There has been a massive house party going on in their block, with free beer and food, and fantastic music, but they’ve locked themselves in their flat and moaned at the noise. They could have been having a great time, it’s such a shame. Still, the rapid release of the remarkable OSIRIS images of Philae descending towards 67P caught us all by surprise, so hopefully the team will be more open and more generous now, and maybe wander over to the party with a bottle of cheap wine, knock shyly on the door and ask if it’s not too late to come in.

So… here we are then… Philae’s mission might be over, or it might just have paused, it’s – like much of space exploration – a waiting game now. But whatever happens, this tremendous interest in the landing, and the subsequent outpouring of grief after Philae fell silent, has been proof, if any proof was needed, that the public will, if given the chance, engage with science and embrace it. It doesn’t matter if they don’t “get” the physics, the chemistry or whatever; it doesn’t matter that they don’t “get” why the boffins leaning towards their computer screens get excited when they see a squiggly line on a graph go up or down. They “get” that it’s an adventure, it’s exploration, it’s what makes us us. Oh, some don’t “get” it; they say that the money spent on space exploration would be better spent “down here, on Earth”, and jump,up onto their high horses and preach to everyone about how the money should have been used for medical research, or famine relief, things like that, not realising – or choosing to ignore – that scientists don’t fill rockets with money and send them off into space, they use that money to build things, to design and invent things which will find uses on Earth, too. And the wages of those scientists, engineers and techs goes back into “the real world”, to pay for their groceries, their car repair, their kids’ education, their pensions, and more. And the same people who moan about the money “lavished” on space exploration have no qualms about paying each month for such “essentials” as satellite TV, pet food and cosmetics. Some even suggest we should stop spending money “on space” altogether, as if that would help cure the world’s problems, as if so much money is spent “on space” that diverting it elsewhere would magically eradicate disease, poverty and injustice. Would they suggest stopping all air travel, and diverting that money? Or shutting down Hollywood, which can now easily spend $100m on a single film? Or putting to sleep every dog and cat in the world, and using the cost of their pet food for medical research? No, of course not. Space exploration is an easy target for ignorant people, that’s all.

Oh well. We’re never going to convince them. I’m not sure it’s worth even trying any more.

Right, time to wrap this up. Let’s all hope for the best, and keep our fingers crossed for Philae waking up again, but accept that it might not – and if it doesn’t, celebrate its incredible success!

8 Responses

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  3. Those people are not ignorant, they have different opinions and priorities than yours. Some people love animals and think money should go to save animals while other people care more about finding cures for diseases and would like money to go there, it’s their opinion. Your opinion is that money should go to space exploration, that’s your opinion. Nobody is ignorant, people just have different opinions. Duh.

    It’s very funny and hypocritical of you that you feel human empathy for a piece of metal but no human empathy for other fellow human beings. The only person I see who’s on a high horse is yourself. Just because someone has a different OPINION than yours about money and causes (social, scientific, medical etc.) doesn’t mean they are ignorant, they just have DIFFERENT OPINIONS than yours and they find other subjects more important to them. All of them are valid. Space exploration is good. Social causes are good. Everything is good. You are passionate about space exploration and that is perfectly fine while another person is more passionate about animals and that is also perfectly fine while another person is more passionate about finding cures or helping the poor and that is also perfectly fine. People who have different priorities and subjects and passions than you doesn’t mean that they are ignorant, it’s simple to understand.

    • Thanks for your comment, I *always* appreciate feedback, positive or negative. I’m sorry you felt you had to use a pseudonym rather than your real name tho, that always strikes me as a little cowardly when someone does that, but anyway, I think you misunderstood my post and my use of the word “ignorant”. I meant ignorant of the facts, not stupid, which people often take ignorant to mean. As for feeling no empathy for fellow human beings, well, I work in a care home, and unless you do to you have absolutely *no idea* how much ’empathy’ it takes to do that, with the things we see and have to do. And my cat – who features often on my blog, you might have noticed – and the vet bill for ¬£105 I just had to pay for her are proof enough, I think, of my “love for animals”. But you’re right, different people have different priorities, and I’m not trying to push mine on anyone. What I do object to, tho, strongly, is people moaning about expenditure on space when they themselves do nothing to support or speak up for the causes they claim would benefit from diverting the money spent on space. I have met people who have happily paid ¬£10 to go and see “Interstellar” but then moan about the cost of ROSETTA, which is very hypocritical. They could have chosen to send that ¬£10 to Oxfam or Save The Children, but they spent it on sitting in the dark for three days – ok, three hours, it just felt like three days! – in a plush chair watching a film. Then they criticise spending on space? Give me a break. An aid worker who actually goes to a country and helps people, and sees poverty and heartbreak, has a lot more right to criticise space spending than someone who sits comfortably at home, browsing the internet, watching their subscription satellite sport channels on their huge widescreen TV, I think. But again, thank you – genuinely – for taking the time to leave your comment, and for reading my blog, I appreciate it.

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