Today is PerihelionDay! Scientists at the European Space Agency and beyond will be popping the champagne and donning party hats to mark 'Rosetta'sDay in the Sun'. And many ordinary punters like myself will be joining them on-line as this extraordinary space mission reaches its zenith. What this all means is that comet67P has travelled around in its orbit to reach its closest point to the sun in 6.5 years. As it does so, the sun's heat melts icy deposits in its body or nucleus and so the comet is firing off jets of dust and gas that create the comet's distinctive tail.
|Credit ESA: http://blogs.esa.int/rosetta/2015/02/11/new-perspectives-cometwatch-6-february/|
As in ancient times, astronomers on Earth can now track the flaming ball with its streamer of light across our night skies. But for the first time in history, we have a spacecraft sitting right on its tail, hitching a ride. And if that's not wondrous enough, there's our trusty Philaerobot snuggled into a cliff wall on the comet itself while all this mayhem kicks off around it. Vicariously, through our machines, we have been getting a front row view of the fireworks show with mesmerising photos of this alien world beamed back every day from Rosetta's cameras. I can't resist the 'we'. Partly because the Rosetta mission does feel like a feat of human ingenuity and curiosity that we can all revel in. And partly because the ESA have been so generous in sharing their data on their website that its possible to feel like you're with them every step of the way. In fact, they recently won an award for their educational programmes around this mission, working with schools and teachers.
|Credit ESA: http://www.esa.int/var/esa/storage/images/esa_multimedia/images/2014/02/philae_descent/14277309-1-eng-GB/Philae_descent.jpg|
They have also inspired artists like myself. Back in November I was riveted by the unfolding drama of Philae'slanding. Would it smash on the rocky surface? Would it more likely just bounce off and drift into space given the comet's low-gravity? Would it be able to talk to us or be just another dead machine on an alien world? As it was, although it bounced three times and disappeared from view, it managed to lodge under a cliff-face that sheltered it from the heat of advancing perihelion and the fierce jets of material. The scientific mission was highly successful with nearly all its instruments working. For three days Philae ran an on-site laboratory and up-loaded all its packets of data before going 'to sleep' when its solar batteries ran low. 'I'm tired' it tweeted. And then silence. A storyteller could hardly wish for more of an Act One plot point.
While Philae slept, maybe for good, Rosetta was busy mapping the comet's surface in a series of fly-bys, yielding these spellbinding images. I was fascinated by the ESA's choice of Egyptianmythology to name its '19 regions' as well as the mission itself. When I began to research the old Egyptian stories, they seemed particularly apt. Here was Philae descending into a cometary underworld where it vanished from view, lost in the darkness. And the comet itself was travelling back towards the sun, like the cyclical journeys of the sun-god Ra moving across our skies only to disappear into Duat or the underworld each night. I was moved to write a new poem sequence tracing Rosetta and Philae's adventures on the other side of the solar system. And my narrative is a mash-up of modern space science and the ancient mythology. Here's one of the verses from my 'Egyptian Book of the Hours' for Philae.
'I'm tired,' you twitter
a tin-foil chick alone in the dark
and packets of data dispatched
you burrow into the hide
of a frozen mammoth haunch;
dormant not extinct, you're
descending by robotic barque
into an underworld cyber-space
where a lab-coated Anubis
will weigh your feather-heart.
Two weeks hence, on 1st September, I will be joining scientists and astronomers for our own celebration of Rosetta's mission. 'To Perihelion and Beyond!' will be staged at the NationalSpace Centre in Leicester. Our event will feature poems & performance, science and story, and a 'Build Your own Comet' demo. And my Book of the Hours will be available as a scroll, papyrus style, to cast a spell as we re-live Philae's Descent into Duat. Hopefully it will honour the storytellers of old as well as today's space adventurers.