I'm Right Again Dot Com

A new commentary every Wednesday                November 19, 2014


Comet Lander Philae

    I often don't know what my topic is be until Wednesday morning looms, but a good friend, Jim Bromley, the Keeper of the IRADC archives, (see below) suggested that I should mention the saga of Philae,*  the first Comet Lander.     

    There is far more documentation available on the subject than my remaining time on this planet and limited education will accommodate. Scientists of every stripe, and certainly those of the European Space Agency, most responsible for the astounding achievement, have followed every kilometer of the voyage with constant fits of ecstatic pleasure, and posted tons of coverage every week. I found 12 pages of footnotes in eight-point font on Wikipedia alone.

    This feeble essay on an extraordinarily difficult feat is the best I can do: whirl around the outside periphery of the physics involved, much as Philae's mother ship, the Rosetta** spacecraft continues to do, even as you read this.

    (Slowly now) Ten years ago, Rosetta, with the 100kg (220 pound) Philae comet lander aboard, was launched by an Ariane rocket from French Guiana on a path too convoluted by me to conceive. Those who helped steer its course were able to intercept a comet, speeding at nearly 50,000 miles an hour—about 40 times the speed of a bullet on Earth—as it flashed by in its elliptical orbit: a pathway described by massive objects (suns, planets, galaxies), that distort space-time (don't ask) and cause suns to sling comets back out into frigid space after literally boiling off some of its material during its brief, close, cosmic encounter with our solar system.

    This reminds me to mention that once upon a time, comets were believed to be ice-balls. The amazing photos taken of Comet 67P surely dispel that theory. It resembles a craggy rock, fashioned somewhat in the shape of a dumbbell that could fit within the parameters of an American football field. 

    What most amazes me is that Hollywood's special effects people came up with something so similar years ago: Enormous objects representing giant meteorites set on a course to annihilate all life on earth once they struck...and not just dinosaurs this time. 

    Even though many celestial observers predict with great certainty that more such cataclysmic impacts will surely occur again to Mother Earth, I cannot bring myself to worry enough about it to the extent that it affects my health. I live with the expectation that Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Clint Eastwood, Jody Foster, or the new space hero, Matthew McConaughey, will jet out there far enough to atomize the object before it causes any real damage. Blame Hollywood if it is found that right now, there is really very little we can do about it, if one of the teams of astronomers who keep constant track for such unwelcome visitors, determines that a really big one is on a collision course with us.

    OK, so Philae's feet didn't spear into the surface of the comet sufficiently and bounced around a few times before landing in the shade of a rocky crag, preventing its solar panels from recharging its batteries. Philae is said to be in hibernation, after spurting a stream of data back to earth.

    It begs the question: With all of humankind's needs, was this worthwhile? 

    Consider this: At first, Dr. Hertz, and all who followed his experiments with electricity, had no idea why and how the "radio waves" he produced could be detected a few feet away from his original "transmitter," with no wires connecting the two pieces of apparatus. We now know how to communicate with a device that evolved from that experiment that is 28 light-seconds away. The next time—and be assured, there will be many more Philaes—Philae II or Philae XX, will lock onto a comet's surface and begin all of those experiments for which it was intended and ultimately lead to knowledge far beyond that which Hertz's discovery pointed toward over a century ago.

    That is, if we don't succeed in wiping out our specie, without any assistance from a massive object from outer space; our unique, God-given inquisitive nature will force us to keep on asking interminable questions and forever attempting to answer them. 

    As to Philae, there is one slim hope: The sun may once shine upon the peregrinations of Comet Lander Philae; the solar panels will recharge its batteries and we will hear from it again.

    Worth noting: Scientists from throughout the European Space Agency, representing 10 nations involved in the project, communicate in English. They began this new millennium with people in close collaboration—instead of fruitless attempts at domination of each other on the killing fields.

-Phil Richardson, Curmudgeon, Observer and Storyteller.

*Philae: phil-A,' as as in a slice of something good to eat in France, (fillet') is a stone found in Egypt, which along with the **Rosetta obelisk, helped archeologists translate hieroglyphics.

 

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