Last week the European Space Agency announced that they are no longer expecting to hear from the Philae lander sat precariously on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. “The chances for Philae to contact our team at our lander control centre are unfortunately getting close to zero,” says Stephan Ulamec, Philae project manager at the German Aerospace Center, DLR. “We are not sending commands any more, and it would be very surprising if we were to receive a signal again.” The lander has remained silent since 9th July last year.
This staggering feat of science and engineering started two decades ago and saw a washing machine-sized probe, launched in 2004, slingshot around the Earth and Mars to travel 500 million miles before landing on a lump of rock less than 5km in diameter hurtling through space. Even today with the expectation of this incredible feat is hard to take in, the thought, planning and dedication required to make this happen quite undeniably out of this world. Despite being launched two years before Twitter was founded the lander’s tweets reverberated around the world and helped bring the reality of the scientific triumph to a whole new generation of people, perhaps less than impressed by grainy black and white images of space rocks than our parents once were.
Some will undoubtedly question the value of this $1bn flight of fancy arguing that the money could be better spent elsewhere, to those critics I say you are wrong. I could start by justifying space exploration using the real-world discoveries. Space exploration brings together a lot of smart people from many different fields and puts them to work on some tough problems. The result is not only fantastic scientific discoveries but also many useful inventions. From healthier baby food to technology to better diagnose breast cancer, to further flying golf balls.
Furthermore large space exploration projects are almost always the result of international cooperation. The International Space Station is the most obvious example, but the space shuttle regularly saw astronauts from other nations, and many robotic missions include instruments built by teams in other countries. As NASA gears up to return to the moon, precursor missions from Japan, India, China and Russia are already in orbit, are planned, or are under construction. Future human Mars missions will almost certainly involve multiple space agencies to spread the cost among several nations. Nothing helps people understand each other and get over petty jealousy like working together on shared problems.
Almost the most significant impact on humanity of Space Exploration has been on our children. From the days of Neil Amstrong’s famous ‘small step,’ the push into the heavens has inspired generations to pursue careers in maths, science and engineering. As our society becomes more technology-dependent, the populace needs to become scientifically literate to keep up. Telling students that “You could be the first astronaut on Mars!” or “You could be the one driving the next Mars rovers!” is a pretty useful way of inspiring them to study science and maths. Locally, earlier this month students from Grimsby were lucky enough to be selected to put questions to our very own Tim Peake live on the International Space Station.
Above all else the exploration of space teaches us our insignificance. As our sight stretches into the depths of space and time and spacecraft explore revealing the scale and diversity of worlds even within our solar system, we are provided with a humbling sense of our place in the universe. Carl Sagan described it beautifully when commenting on that most breathtaking photograph ‘Pale Blue Dot’, taken looking back on the Earth from the edge of the solar system by Voyager 1:
“The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.”