We follow. #AreWeThereYet? What's not to love about a space mission that delivers more drama, danger and comebacks than a sci-fi franchise? Only last week, we got another cliff-hanger as space-craft Rosetta tracked down its long-lost lander Philae. Marvellous as the engineering has been, it's the imagination that's kept me riveted to my desktop porthole. ESA transported us across the solar system via our Twitter-feeds. Beam me down, Scottie. Those razor-sharp OSIRIS photos of comet 67P put me right there, kicking up carbon-dust.
Where early Egyptians drew constellations on coffin-lids to guide departing souls, ESA let us ride the stars. This virtual adventure inspired me to create a poet's saga for the digital age: Philae's Book of Hours. So Philae is a chattering soul-bird. And though its song has since fallen silent, it had us spellbound in its season. Its cometary resting-place Abydos was named for an ancient cemetery. In Egyptian mythology, after death a human-headed soul-bird flits between the lands of living and dead. I thought of ESA scientists at computers communing across vast distances to their metal avatar in this underworld. But Philae ventured into the dark on our behalf too, an android explorer probing an icy wilderness, an ingenious box of tricks sifting air and dirt for the secrets of creation. And most extraordinary of all, it talked to us. Well-named for an obelisk that unlocked an ancient language, it kept up a stuttering dialogue for days. #LifeOnAComet Its subsequent silence always hummed with the promise of more.
as a mummified dog... When
you wake at last, Philae
a snakeskin song of telemetry
a cometary Book of Hours ...'
Rosetta is the mother-ship goddess, blue-winged like the protective figure of Isis, who knew a thing or two about resurrections. So whip-smart, quick on its feet, engineering with attitude. Think Princess Leia before the bikini. But this solar-panelled spacecraft could also be sun-god Ra's midnight barge crossing the dangerous realms of the afterlife. When ESA's scientists described the comet's icy jets as a 'living thing, a dragon waking up,' the storyteller in me was hooked. Rosetta's zig-zagging course was a pyramid trajectory. It had to dodge comet 67P's fierce outpourings, just as Ra and his 'crew of gods' had to steer past Apophis, the fire-spitting snake. Surely this is a classic Hero-Quest, a space-voyage in an aluminium boat on a wing and a prayer. Han Solo minus the laser-gun.
And then there is the comet, captured in mesmerising black-and-white shots in all its rugged variety. I am addicted to those OSIRIS close-ups. Tracts of wildernesses marked not by space-boot but by Philae's human-made SESAME feet. I see comet 67P as a book. Let's call it a book of maps, a cartography of 26 alien regions 'named for Gods of the Old Kingdom'. All very Star-Gate. ESA's Egyptian analogy for the space mission finds its fullest expression in their colour-coded maps of 67P's rocky terrains. Rosetta's own burial chamber will be a cometary pit of hell. I love that it's named for Deir-El-Medina, an Egyptian archaeological site filled with tomb-workers' rubble. But the comet is a book of spells too, a book that spits and fires and sings. A book that hides its secrets deep in pages of ice-dirt, in a crease of rock or sudden abyss:
uncharted twinklings, carbon-glints,
constellations of grit, a cosmic
Some Earthlings are sad that the mission is drawing to a close.* That we will cease our conversation across space with Rosetta's satellite. No more fly-by postcards from the underworld. No time-delayed messages from the box-robot forever hanging on its cliff. Yes, I'll miss all that. But the scientific stories that Rosetta-Philae gifted us are still being decoded. We will be thumbing the pages of 67P for decades to come. And this space-epic has already become a tale of us at our best, coming together in many languages, to achieve an extraordinary feat. No wonder we painted a face on Philae and begged it to call home. Like the Egyptians, we've daubed this fable on our walls. Rosetta and Philae are celebrated in our poems, rock albums, t-shirts, e-wallpapers, sculptures, cartoons, comet-shoes, installations and origami. They are already legends. As the Pyramid texts promise, 'you have died but you will live.'
* ESA has invited followers of Rosettta & Philae to 'Share your personal experiences and feelings about the mission' on a Rosetta Legacy Page. See: http://rosetta-legacy.tumblr.com/ This blog-post appeared there in September 2016.