A spacecraft millions of kilometres from earth, ten years after launch, being brought out of induced hibernation by mission control. The signals took something like forty five minutes to travel the distance one way. Right on cue, Rosetta came back to life to be readied for a remarkable first in exploration and discovery. The project is an amazing combination of imagination, science, navigation and risk management.
The craft is designed to deliver a lander on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (C-G) and accompany the comet as it enters our inner solar system. While a successful mission will reveal much about the life of comets, it may reveal information about creation that pre-dates our solar system. Most intriguing of all, it may assist with questions about comets possibly first delivering the elements essential for life to evolve.
Rosetta is named after the stone that, around 200 years ago, provided the key to decoding Egyptian hieroglyphics. The lander is named Philae after an island in the Nile, where an obelisk was found that helped the decoding of the Stone. Rosetta, the space vehicle, has the goal of reading the origins of the Earth and life itself. Philae will assist, standing on the comet drawing data, all the while speeding toward the sun.
The realm of science fiction continues to make room for such audacious adventures. One might wonder at what is to come. Dreams aside, this joint venture of The European Space Agency and NASA will serve to enlarge our understanding of the earth and interstellar space.
It all begs the question of what such exploration might reveal about the human condition. Will humanity derive direct benefit from this craft's extraordinary trip around the solar system?
The benefits of potential discovery may astound us all. It may reveal information useful for tracking and averting asteroid threats. Alongside the sciences, prospects of pursuing mineral wealthwill have ongoing enticement. Gaining knowledge about traveling in deep space will inform future programs, not least the likelihood of going to Mars. Heck, we might hear we are not alone, then again… However, what might this adventure tell us of ourselves?
In 1990 Carl Sagan convinced the controllers of Voyager 1 to reverse the direction of its cameras, as it neared the limits of our planetary system, in order to view Earth in the context of space (http://www.planetary.org/explore/space-topics/earth/pale-blue-dot.html). The result is the famous blue dot. There among countless stars is a little blue point. It is the Earth, as it were floating, alone, relatively insignificant. It remains an image that is inspiring and for some frightening.
Exploration of space presents humanity with the opportunity to take an objective view of Home. To appreciate the miraculous beauty each of us is privileged to enjoy for a time. With all the empirical knowledge that may come our way the opportunities also present reflective insights. For example: life is transitory and fragile; national borders are invention; humanity cannot do anything else but make a life here, therefore making effort to co-operate one with another is worthwhile; we all are part of a whole sustained by a very thin biosphere, surrounded by the infinite inhospitable vastness of space.
Above all such appreciation, one might wonder at the fact of our being. For many this becomes the ground of religious faith. To see Earth as a miracle of life in a lonely part of the universe is to invite conjecture at our origin. Whether by chance or the gift of Divine providence, the wonder of it has potential to evoke a profound sense of thankfulness for life itself.
Rosetta offers opportunities for us to re-read our own stories and appreciate afresh the fragile diversity of life that enriches us all. A spacecraft heard a wake-up call. One might pray we will hear the same.
23 January 2014
Image: Rosetta calls Home: ESA