2014-12-13

Europe's Pride

Rosetta and Philae did not only conquer comet "Chury", but also our hearts and minds. This alone was worth the effort.

This article originally appeared in German on Nov 19, 2014 in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. You find an online version here.

There are some who regard Philae's bumpy landing on comet Churyumov-Gerasimdenko on November 12, 2014 a failure. After a ten-year voyage on board the Rosetta spacecraft, the fridge-sized lander bounced off its designated landing site and ended up in a shadowy crevice. A cold gas thruster failed to push it onto the comet's surface, it's landing harpoons didn't fire. Without sufficient sunlight, its batteries died only two days later, and Philae went silent. Maybe forever. 

Philae - Europe's first comet lander, descending to its uncertain destiny. Credit: ESA/Osiris/MPS

Whoever sees a space flop here misses two points. Firstly, landing a robot on a comet 510 million kilometers in outer space is somewhat more difficult than to reverse park your car in midst of city traffic. A little bumping may be allowed. Secondly: Before it ran out of energy, Philae managed to unspool its scientific program and sent a data galore to its home planet. Doesn't sound like a failure to me.

How much to a comet? 30 cents.

For the first time Philae drilled into a comet's surface (at least tried to), studied the interior with radar, measured the mechanical and electrical properties and transmitted images to Earth. A longer mission would have been desirable, but bonus. Let's not forget the main mission - Rosetta - will be running for months to come. And there's still hope that little Philae will be woken up again once comet "Chury" gets closer to the Sun.

A common reproach against space flight it that it is "so expensive". Wouldn't it be better if we had invested all the money into the fight against hunger and poverty on our planet instead? Disregarding that the benefit of financial development aid is debatable, Rosetta's total cost sums 1.4 billion Euros (about 1.7 billion US dollars) over its mission time of more than ten years. In 2012 alone the European Union dedicated €55 billion to development aid (pdf). Every European citizen paid about 30 cents annually for Rosetta and €110 for development aid. To forgo Rosetta wouldn't have changed much on planet Earth, but deprived humankind of a unique opportunity to gain knowledge about the world in which it lives. This world does not end at the edge of space, you know. 

Spaceships talking, tweeting
  
To measure Rosetta's and Philae's success in terms of scientific output only would fall short anyway. With Rosetta, the European Space Agency warped its public relations into the 21st century and European astronautics - often overshadowed by America - into the center of global attention. Esa consistently used Social Media to transport the mission's fascination onto our laptops and smartphones, and subsequently, into our minds and hearts. Spaceships were "talking" to each other, transmitted status reports and images, answered questions - via Twitter, a medium not yet existent when Rosetta was launched. Live webstreams of crucial moments and press briefings satisfied not only the curiosity of declared space nerds.

Esa went beyond mere technical communication. Spacecrafts suddenly had faces and personalities. One might discern some kind of "infantilization", or even space kitsch, in this kind of science communication. But Esa managed to convert soulless robots into likable, sympathetic beings. On can only guess how many future scientists and engineers were inspired by this.

Annoying Image Embargo

However, the attentive observer could not help but notice that not Esa, but the involved partner institutes held control over images and data delivered by Philae and Rosetta - and their communication policies differed considerably. The Philae-Mupus team of the German Aerospace Center (DLR) for example showed how science communication can work today by tweeting their incoming results more or less live into the web.

The Osiris-group of the Max-Planck-Institute for Solar System Research in Göttingen, Germany, in contrast - they run the by far most powerful camera in Rosetta's armory - insisted on their strict embargo policy, which had spurred criticism for months. With only very few exceptions, Osiris did not release any images to the public. Esa's decision to release all images of Rosetta's navigational camera under a Creative-Commons license, thus allowing practically free use for everyone, is a model approach that should be lauded.  

Europeans - other than Americans perhaps - do not regard a space mission like Rosetta as a token of national or continental prestige or superiority. Philae did not plant a EU flag, which is refreshing. However - there is enough reason for us Europeans to be a proud of "our" Rosetta, for it showed us one thing: that the old continent is more than a bunch of quarreling nations with an unloved common currency. Together, Europeans can achieve bodacious things - not just in space.

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