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The Rosetta Stone

Wednesday, 12 November, 2014

The stone here is Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and the Rosetta is the European Space Agency satellite that will drop a robot probe called Philae today onto this clump of icy rock 600 million kilometres above where this blog post is being written. Confirmation of the hoped-for success is expected at around 1600 GMT when Philae sends a tweet about its new surroundings to us back here on Earth.

On 20 July 1969, when the first man walked on the Moon, some 500 million people watched the event on TV. A smaller audience is predicted for today’s landing. There is no Neil Armstrong, after all, and most people cannot pronounce Churyumov-Gerasimenko, never mind finding it in the night sky. Still, there’s Twitter, Facebook and YouTube for all those who want to follow the progress of the satellite and its probe.

Interest in outer space is not what it used to be. The Cold War rivalry that spurred so much scientific competition has cooled, the costs are alarming, the dangers are real and earthly concerns are more pressing these days. Still, the current cinematic success of Interstellar might help revive enthusiasm for interplanetary adventure. With luck, Philae will do the business today. If it does, ESA will feel entitled to be regarded as a serious player alongside NASA. Philae will have to attract more than 1.7 million followers before it can match the drawing power of Curiosity Rover, however.

Comet landing place


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