Across the Universe: Ice dreams

This is a slightly edited version of a column that first ran in The Tablet in August 2014

ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft arrived at comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko on August 6, 2014. Launched more than ten years earlier, upon arrival it took up an orbit around the sun that parallels the comet’s path, to keep the comet in its cameras from a distance of only a few tens of kilometers. The next two months saw intense preparation for the final stage of the mission: in mid November, 2014, a lander was sent to the comet’s dark surface with instruments to measure its composition in close up detail. (The original plan was for it to drill about 20 cm into the comet itself, to pierce the dusty crust and reach the icy material beneath. Alas, it landed into a shadowed region and was not able to get enough power to do its job or communicate with the orbiter... its fate is described here, on the ESA website.)

Rosetta's comet: 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Comets are famously known as “dirty snowballs”, accumulations of ice and dust. When they approach the Sun and warm up, the ice turns to gas, producing the glorious comet tail and a “coma” of gas and dust that obscures comet’s core from our earth-based telescopes; hence the need for close-up views from a spacecraft. Meanwhile, as the ice boils off it also leaves behind a slag of dark dust masking the icy interior; hence the surface drill.

This space probe was named “Rosetta” in the hope that, like the Rosetta Stone, it would help us interpret the original composition and physical state of the material that formed the planets, four and a half billion years ago. The images it has sent us of the comet’s shape and surface already have shown that some small bodies in our solar system, like this comet, can be “contact binaries:” two distinct lumps with a bridge of material gluing them together. On seeing the first clear images of Comet 67P’s shape, some scientists on Twitter immediately dubbed it the “rubber ducky” comet.

First seen in 1969, this comet is named for its discoverers, the Ukrainians Klim Churyumoy and Svetlana Gerasimenko. Recently, when Dr. Geramisenko was asked, “did you ever think that one day people might plan to land on this comet?” she replied, “I had dreamed of it, yet did not think it would happen so fast… life has presented me a great gift.”

Dreams of flights to a comet fit in well with another event in August 2014, the annual World Science Fiction convention held that year at the ExCeL Center in London. Ten thousand writers, editors, and readers gathered to talk business – both science and fiction – and speculate about the future of a world that already has dystopian global warming, instant universal knowledge in your pocket, and spaceships to comets.

The popular culture likes to poke fun at SF fans from a distance. I’ve attended these conventions for more than 40 years. Unlike the stereotype of the spotty young-white-male, today’s attendees show a remarkable age and gender balance. Yes, some of us “look funny;” there are more disabled and otherwise physically challenged folk here than you usually see in, say, a typical television sitcom. And if some of us enjoy the chance to disguise ourselves in exotic costumes, it’s only a healthy reminder not to mistake the surface for what’s inside.

I met up at LonCon, in front of the British Interplanetary Society exhibit, with astronomer Daiana Di Nino. She and her husband, Michele Trenti, taught at our 2014 Vatican Observatory Summer School; they were finishing up their time at Cambridge University at the time of the convention. They are now at the University of Melbourne, Australia.

But in fact it’s very misleading to make assumptions about science fiction fans. No two are alike in background or taste; any attempt to lump us together, gets us wrong. This diversity speaks both to the welcoming nature of SF fandom, and the universal nature of the ability – and desire – to dream.

Turns out, that’s also true of comets. For all we’ll learn about Rosetta’s target, we know a single visit won’t let us completely understand all comets. Indeed, spacecraft have visited half a dozen different comet nuclei to date, and no two of them are alike. Comets, like SF fans, are individuals.

It’s an echo of what theologians call “the scandal of particularity.”

Br. Guy Consolmagno

About Br. Guy Consolmagno

Brother Guy Consolmagno SJ is Director of the the Vatican Observatory and President of the Vatican Observatory Foundation. A native of Detroit, Michigan, he earned undergraduate and masters' degrees from MIT, and a Ph. D. in Planetary Science from the University of Arizona; he was a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard and MIT, served in the US Peace Corps (Kenya), and taught university physics at Lafayette College before entering the Jesuits in 1989.

At the Vatican Observatory since 1993, his research explores connections between meteorites, asteroids, and the evolution of small solar system bodies, observing Kuiper Belt comets with the Vatican's 1.8 meter telescope in Arizona, and applying his measure of meteorite physical properties to understanding asteroid origins and structure. Along with more than 200 scientific publications, he is the author of a number of popular books including Turn Left at Orion (with Dan Davis), and most recently Would You Baptize an Extraterrestial? (with Father Paul Mueller, SJ). He also has hosted science programs for BBC Radio 4, been interviewed in numerous documentary films, appeared on The Colbert Report, and for more than ten years he has written a monthly science column for the British Catholic magazine, The Tablet.

Dr. Consolmagno's work has taken him to every continent on Earth; for example, in 1996 he spent six weeks collecting meteorites with a NASA team on the blue ice regions of East Antarctica. He has served on the governing boards of the Meteoritical Society; the American Astronomical Society Division for Planetary Sciences (of which he was chair in 2006-2007); and IAU Commission 16 (Planets and Satellites). In 2000, the small bodies nomenclature committee of the IAU named an asteroid, 4597 Consolmagno, in recognition of his work. In 2014 he received the Carl Sagan Medal from the American Astronomical Society Division for Planetary Sciences for excellence in public communication in planetary sciences.

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Across the Universe: Ice dreams — 1 Comment

  1. I am old enough to remember Mariner 2 sailing past Venus and us learning that the surface of that planet was hot enough to melt lead. Gone forever my childhood dreams of dinosaur haunted Venusian swamps (not to mention Amtorian princesses). Not long after, Mariner 4 similarly demolished my Lowellian fantasies of Martian canals and million year old civilizations (and once again, gone were my visions of Barsoomian princesses). Then it was the turn of Pioneer 10, sweeping away Robert Heinlein’s stories of a colonized Jovian moon system (Farmer in the Sky, et al.) with its discovery of lethal radiation belts surrounding that planet. At least there were no Jovian princesses to be discarded this time around. But it was nevertheless another chapter in a decades long tale of “Science ruins everything!”

    But not so with Rosetta’s revelations at Comet 67P! At long last, a world whose reality exceeded our wildest imagination. I cannot thank the people behind that amazing mission enough for bringing a sense of wonder back into planetary exploration.

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