Space makes for great cinema: We thrill to “Interstellar,” “Star Wars” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
We have more knowledge about the personal lives of Capt. James T. Kirk and Mr. Spock than we do any real astronaut. Sometimes, we yawn at real-life space exploits. As you read this, six humans are orbiting above in the International Space Station. Can any of us name them?
But this week, the European Space Agency, in a giant leap for mankind, landed the spacecraft Philae on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Philae was attached to the Rosetta spacecraft, which jettisoned it to 67P’s surface.
Mark Twain fancifully observed that he came to Earth on Halley’s Comet in 1835 and would depart on Halley’s Comet in 1910. He did, in a way. But he never could have imagined that mankind would actually put a vehicle on a comet the way we did on Tuesday, 104 years after Twain’s death and one of Halley’s periodic visits.
We imagine comets to be a little like FedEx trucks, balls of ice, dust and rock hurtling through the cosmos, delivering water and other elements to planets. It has long been speculated that a comet impact created the conditions on Earth that led to life. We don’t have the tracking number, but we’d like to thank the sender.
Philae was on a 10-year journey. Launched in 2004, it settled onto the surface of the comet at walking speed, having hit the target that was traveling at 80,000 mph, 317 million miles from Earth.
It’s about the size of a washing machine, with harpoon-armed legs that were supposed to fire into the comet, but they apparently malfunctioned. The vehicle bounced once or twice before settling in. Screws to fasten the lander to surface seem to have worked.
Imagine the technological marvel of getting close enough to a comet to photograph it, let alone land on it. In 2005, a comet probe called Deep Impact smashed into Comet Tempel 1’s nucleus. Now the European Space Agency has topped that.
The lander is stuck next to a cliff, its solar panels in shadow, which will shorten the life of the spacecraft. Still, as it surfs through space aboard Comet 67P, Philae will be texting us photos. We can hardly wait. Awe-inspiring doesn’t describe it. “Gee whiz” might be closer.
Scientists hope to discover more about the origins of the universe through this most astounding moment in mankind’s history. While we remained bogged down on Earth with the Islamic State, Putin, Syria, midterm election repercussions and the fate of Honey Boo Boo, it is exhilarating to look up at the stars and know that this stuff is transitory.
Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield said: “We’re close enough to lick it and see what it’s made of.” We’ll pass on the licking. But if it happens to pass by Mark Twain, please give him our regards.