Many of us, I’d venture to guess, couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn with a dried-up cow chip.
And yet, incredibly, a group of human beings somehow landed a robot the size of a washing machine on the surface of a comet 33 million miles from Earth and traveling at 85,000 mph. What?! Say that again! How in the world (out of the world!) is such a feat possible?
Yes, the news was mind-boggling, overwhelming, astonishing, almost impossible to wrap one’s mind around. A man landing on the moon was a landmark achievement, of course, but the moon is an easy target compared to a debris clump whizzing past that fast millions of miles away.
It’s tempting to want to anthropomorphize that robot, “little” Philae, into a cute bouncing baby, who, after a 10-year journey, landed on Comet 67P, babbled its first words back to Earth, then up and bounced again – twice – landing in a sheltered, shady cradle where the tired baby is taking a well-deserved nap.
One wit termed Philae’s cometary contact as “one giant bounce for mankind.”
The statistics of that journey are enough to put one’s head in orbit around a core of jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring wonder.
- The European Space Agency mission, dubbed Rosetta, began with a blast-off from Earth in March 2004.
- The vehicle traveled more than four billion miles in loopy orbits through inner space before its rendezvous with the comet.
- Comet 67P is three miles wide and has virtually no gravity. Like other comets, it’s a “dirty snowball” of rocks, dust, water and gas left over from the very beginnings of the universe, estimated at five billion years ago.
- Scientists are hoping data Philae sent back (and that might still send back if it awakes from its “nap”) will answer many burning questions about comets: their chemical compositions, how they function as they approach the sun and other long-pondered speculations by scientists. Comets are like unadulterated specimens that hold clues to origins of the universe – and us.
- There are thousands of millions of comets orbiting unfathomable distances through inner and outer space. Through billions of years, many of them on their orbits smashed into one another, forming planets. It’s now surmised Earth’s water may have come from comets after their billions of collisions on what we now call Earth. They may have also brought the organic molecules that gave rise to all planetary life – including us – through evolution.
The Rosetta mission and its Philae landing should make us all proud to be part of the human race. It’s good to be reminded, every now and then, of the astonishing, mind-boggling, life-enhancing achievements of which human beings are capable. One gloomy thinker once described history as “a nightmare from which we are trying to awake.” Well, that may be, but it sure was good to awaken one day last week to the news of the Philae landing and the stunning photos of that comet, with its boulders, cliffs, hills, striations no longer unknowable mental abstractions but each one so sharply delineated by the stark contrasts of sun and shade in distant space. It’s almost beyond our minds to imagine, to realize, those same features in their singular particularity (each cliff, boulder, pebble, dust speck and each one different in shape) – made so visible to us by Rosetta – have been hurtling through space on that same comet long before Earth was even formed. It’s dizzying to ponder, seeing that comet, almost like getting a visual glimpse into eternity.
This week, ISIS beheaded another American. Thank goodness for Rosetta. We need triumphs like the Rosetta voyage to remind us, once again, that beheadings and other vicious acts contribute nothing – absolutely nothing – to this good Earth.