Saturday 15 November 2014

The Lullaby of Philae

"My has just begun . I'll tell you more about my new home, comet soon… zzzzz "

So read the last tweet from the Philae lander, sat in its awkward little shady spot on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Unable to recharge its solar powered batteries, the power threshold was breached and the probe fell silent. Just minutes before, the probe was jauntily telling us that it knew time was short, but it would carry out its experiments and send its date back to Earth via its Rosetta mother ship to the very end.

On twitter, thousands of people tweeted their support for the plucky little lander, making it the number one trending topic, before they watched its dignified end with tears in their eyes.

It wasn't actually Philae tweeting; it was a PR worker for the European Space Agency. Philae is a (much quoted) "washing machine" sized instrument package and landing system that landed on Comet 67P last Wednesday. It is not a person.

Artist's impression of Philae coming into land (DSL on Wikimedia)
But no-one treated it like that.

Some people profess to dislike this "anthropomorphising" of non human entities. But in this case the ESA PR guru was doing their job, and brilliantly at that. Philae isn't even alive, yet we have seen it as a courageous, independent little robot engaged in a life or death struggle in a hostile environment far from home. We have created human interest in the inanimate, a huge human interest that will help help to justify to their Governmental backers that their investment was worthwhile, let alone the huge amount of science Philae has carried out in its short lifespan on the surface.

Then there are the scientists, who have put perhaps twelve years of their lives into Rosetta and Philae. They must have got to the point of seeing Philae as being alive too.

Someone on twitter said that Philae wasn't David Bowie's Major Tom. I agree. Philae was the Tin Can, while we were the Major Toms, projecting our hopes, our optimism, our dreams of success and our fears of loneliness and abandonment. We gave it a soul. Philae lifted our eyes away from a world of Ebola and religious wars,and grinding low paid employment into a world where the human race is still capable of wonderful things.

No wonder we wanted it to be alive.

And so many of us were awake towards 1am, watching the little spaceship slip into deep hibernation, and perhaps thinking of Huey, the little robot from Douglas Trumbull's classic ecological sci-fi movie "Silent Running", tending his plants with his little watering can as his space greenhouse drifts off into the forever void.

And perhaps we had a moist eye or two as we tweeted a lullaby to the craft, although, you know, I have a very heavy cold. It was probably that. Or maybe something in my eye. Yes, that was it.

After all, who gets sentimental over a washing machine sized chunk of metal on a lump of ice?

Copyright Creamcrackerednature 15.11.2014

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