Monday 24 November 2014

The Rosetta Mission – This generation’s Moon landings?

The thing everyone seems to talk about with the moon landings is the idea of the whole world stopping to watch. It was a mission that overcame nationalism, it wasn't "America" putting a man on the moon, it was "Us", humankind. With Rosetta, the whole world not only watched but they were part of a real time conversation with mission control. Over the next few months as the scientists analyse the Rosetta data it might tell us many new things about our early solar system. The extremely detailed pictures of the comet are our first look at this strange world. The science data and pictures definitely have a place in inspiring people to become more interested in space/science subjects, but there will always be something incredible (even unbelievable) about humans beings, or robots that humans have engineered, going out into space and actually touching down on worlds beyond our Earth!

Now, I am too young to have personally witnessed the Moon landings, but despite that there has always been something about the subject of space that has totally entranced me. Back in the nineties I personally felt the afterglow of excitement left by moon landings and I am sure they have inspired many of the public young and old to take an interest in science. In fact, I was so inspired during my primary education that when my teacher informed the class that for the last week of term we could do our own project, which could be on any subject, it was our own choice! I chose, what I assumed to be, the most exciting and obvious choice: a project on ‘space’. I remember researching as much as I could find in all the books my school library had to offer on the subject and then writing out my discoveries about the planets, the moon and astronauts onto multi-coloured A4 pages with a pencil, in my neatest handwriting and sticking them together to make a book. I even remember doing an elaborate drawing of an astronaut, which included a cutaway into his astronaut suit so you could see all the tubes inside the suit that helped him breathe and go to the toilet. In fact, I had researched so much information on space that my project workbook was one of the thickest in the class! I really think the buzz surrounding the Rosetta mission will regenerate this excitement and I think it has actually provided us with a greater awareness of possible space/science careers, and now after watching interviews with many of the scientists, engineers and control room operatives it’s not just the astronauts or the landers that are the stars of the show!

All these years later, I work for the University of Southampton doing public outreach for the astronomy department, so space has dominated my career choices. And before I started my current job in communicating science I did a PhD on the subject of black holes. Now, after dedicating four years of my life to one single object, I’m pretty excited to talk about it, and as soon as the students hear that you know about black holes they too get pretty excited and ask many questions! The most common questions I get asked about my black hole research is ‘Has anyone ever been to a black hole?’ or ‘What would happen to me if I fell into one?’ I can tell them about my research on the radiation from the edge of the black hole ‘til I’m blue in the face, but, what I have learned in these past 3 years of trying to communicate astronomy research is that what the students want to know most is not the complex science of these objects but what it would actually be like to go to a black hole and touch it!

The Rosetta mission gave the public an insight into something that was happening right now! They could feel the emotions of every minute and track the spacecraft in real time from wherever they were. They could put themselves in the place of the scientists in the control room, who were nervously waiting for news from Philae, they even had up to date information on what little Philae was ‘feeling’ as he descended to the comet surface. They could see that the scientists and engineers all just looked like normal people, they weren’t superhero-genius types with crazy hair; they even made mistakes! The public became part of this enormous community and through social media they could talk with people all over the world about the next stage in the mission and the science that would come out of it.

The Rosetta mission is no longer breaking news and certainly some people will now focus on the parts of the comet landing that went wrong. Some will argue that we have missed out on much science data from Philae. But, there is something about this mission that overrides all that and that is the fact that, for the first time, humans landed a probe on a comet! And to quote my mother ‘they landed on the moon, and that’s big! But a comet, well, that’s mind blowing! That’s just a bit of rock flying through space!’


I wrote this piece because I was asked by the University media team to write a short article for The Conversation website on the #CometLanding. What you have just read is the original unedited version which I sent to them :) - to see the shorted edited version which ended up on the website click here.

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