So far away, yet so near to us

By: | Published: November 23, 2014 12:06 AM

Even no-nonsense scientists and engineers find themselves personalising their surrogate space explorers

Philae is talking to us,” announced the manager in charge of the little piece of machinery that had just achieved the first landing on a comet, a frozen remnant from the formation of the solar system. “We are on the comet.”

Note the familiar, almost casual tone. It was as if the first thing the probe did on arrival was to call home, like a traveller with an ever-ready iPhone. The flight had taken forever, and that was some landing—bouncing around and finally winding up almost halfway across the surface.

The European Space Agency’s probe was ‘talking’ about its comet landing earlier this month after a 10-year, four-billion-mile journey.

The ‘we’ echoes a famous human-machine flight relationship, Lindbergh’s solo crossing of the Atlantic in The Spirit of St Louis. Here, the distant robotic messenger and the human receiver—the ‘we’—are also collaborators in reaching a new milestone in flight. Philae had made it to the surface on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, an icy, rocky place only two-and-a-half miles wide and 317 million miles from earth.

Now, as even the most stalwart human explorers remain confined to lower earth orbit for the foreseeable future, the search for discovery in the outer reaches of the solar system is left to robotic probes. They are conceived by humans to go where humans themselves cannot go. But that does not preclude the development of a strong human-machine bond over years of building, testing and flying a mission.

Minders of these machines may spend half a career on an idea they will then cast into the heavens, and wait through what may seem like another half-career for it to reach its destination and send back results. The human-machine bond can be tight. Even no-nonsense scientists and engineers find themselves personalising such a consuming life experience as well as a trusted machine.

Sometimes, they, too, are guilty of the transgression they warn laypeople against: anthropomorphism, the attribution of human form and behaviour to non-human or even inanimate forms. A machine is talking to us. It was shaken up by the three-bounce landing, at last coming to rest near a sheltering rock face (not a choice place, as it prevents sunlight from reaching the lander’s solar panels, which were counted on to charge its batteries). Poor Philae may not have long to live.

What could be more natural than treating the probe in almost human terms when you have spent at least a decade, waking and dreaming, with machinery on which such care is bestowed that it penetrates to your very core? Your dog may or may not be your best friend, and who knows about the cat? But Philae talks to you.

Finding something to relate to is a never-ending struggle for humans, as spacecraft and telescopes draw attention to unworldly realms. Thomas A Mutch of Brown University was the principal geologist for the Viking missions in 1976 to search for possible life on Mars. When the first Viking landed on Mars and started transmitting pictures of the immediate surface, Mutch (known to all as Tim) focused his excitement on a single rock near of the craft’s footpads. The rock was red, as was nearly everything around on the russet plain, and so the geologist had something he could relate to. He would deal with the big picture in time.

Reporters don’t always resist the temptation to make homey comparisons of faraway encounters. In 1983, the Pioneer 10 spacecraft crossed the orbit of Pluto. Though it has since been stripped of full planetary standing, Pluto still represents a frontier into a greater unknown. Pioneer had flown by and photographed Jupiter and Saturn and was still going. Writing about this, I kept hearing the rhythm of the Little Engine That Could.
So I sought to put the same bug in the reader’s ear: like the little engine that could, this was the little spacecraft that would probably push on to the frontier of interstellar space and still be living to tell the tale.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, a French author, might have been able to understand our problem with perspective, in a universe so vast in which we are so small. Aside from his books on early aviation, he wrote about the Little Prince, who lived on a small asteroid where he cared for a single rose. The book was written for children, but with grown-ups very much in mind.

A fox the little prince meets has some of the wisest lines. “One sees clearly only with the heart,” he says. “What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

John Noble Wilford

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