The death of a spacecraft

I began my Day of Archaeology preparing for a talk on space archaeology, for an audience of 70 schoolkids and their families. The talk featured some of my favourite objects and places in the solar system – the Venera landing sites on Venus, Tranquility Base on the Moon, the Telstar 1 satellite in Earth orbit, and of course, Voyager 1 and 2 – the most far-flung outposts of human activity in the universe that we can still communicate with.

I thought I should include the solar system’s most recent archaeological site too. In 2014, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft dropped the little Philae lander on the surface of Comet 67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko. What was planned as a graceful cometfall turned into an epic bounce when the lander’s harpoon feet failed to deploy, a potential disaster with so little gravity to hold it there.

The Philae lander. Image courtesy of ESA

The Philae lander. Image courtesy of ESA

The lander came to a stop in the deep shadow of a cliff, another disaster as too little sunlight would now reach its solar panels. Nonetheless, Philae worked in fits and starts, conveying data back to the Rosetta spacecraft dancing around the comet, which then relayed it to Earth.

Among the most interesting results gained from Philae was the existence of complex molecules considered to be “prebiotic”, likely from the early phase of solar system formation. It’s hard to say exactly what this means in terms of the origins of life – but it surely means something.

The landing site. Image courtesy of ESA

The landing site. Image courtesy of ESA

It was amazing that Philae gave us so much, given its rocky start. But nothing had been heard from it since July 2015, and as the comet’s orbit took it further and further from the sun, there wasn’t going to be enough power for renewed contact. On 27 July 2016, the equipment used by Rosetta to communicate with Philae was turned off.

Of course I was following this, and was sorry to see the end of such a thrilling mission – the first time we have landed on the surface of a comet.

As I collected images and information to set the scene for describing the Philae landing site for the schoolkids, my eyes started to fill with tears.

Half an hour later I decided to go out and get a coffee, and found myself sobbing in the corridor. A passing stranger saw me and asked if I was OK. So kind of her! But what could I say? How could I explain that the silence of a robotic spacecraft, riding a comet somewhere out beyond Jupiter, was breaking my heart?

I was far from alone in mourning Philae. Across the world, space scientists and fans were feeling the same and expressing their admiration and loss in social media.

Some would say that this is a quite ridiculous result of anthropomorphising an inanimate technological object. which was what the European Space Agency’s publicity campaign around the mission invited us to do. But I think it’s something far more interesting than that. I think it speaks to how cultural significance is created.

Archaeologists are frequently also cultural heritage managers. We study places and objects, and use criteria like those in Australia’s famous Burra Charter to assess their cultural significance. The nature and degree of cultural significance helps us to decide whether a piece of cultural heritage should be preserved for future generations.

One of the categories of cultural significance is social significance. This is about community esteem, or how people feel about a place or object. You might have a site that has tremendous historical significance and scientific research potential – but if people don’t care about it, why shouldn’t we let something new take its place?

It’s often assumed that people don’t form feelings of attachment to recent technology. It’s too industrial, not ‘beautiful’ in the same way as a historic building, and it’s just there to perform a task. But in my years of research on space technology, I’ve found that this assumption is very far from true.

Something about Philae’s trials and tribulations made so many people relate to it. This remote robot was not so different to us, struggling through life doing the best we can. Perhaps if the mission had been an unmitigated success, these feelings of sympathy might not have developed in the same way.

We could say that Philae has all sorts of cultural significance. As the first human object to land on a comet, it has historic significance. We could study it as one of a suite of exploratory probes in the solar system, and look at how its technology compares with other spacecraft made for different environments – that’s scientific significance. The factors that culminated in Philae’s particular design and appearance contribute to its ‘aesthetic’ significance.

But perhaps the most important is Philae’s social significance: how it made us feel.



3 thoughts on “The death of a spacecraft

  1. This is one of the case I’d love to raise and connect to my former bachelor degree final work called “Silent leadership” where i briefly opened the question and the importance of emotion in organization (2008) today a fully on going explorated world.
    With this point I’d love to connect to what will be my main goal in this upcoming year. A thesis on debris and heritage as I wrote on the web in these months many posts it seems I am not the only person to push heritage and archaeology so forward and the opportunity represented by space debris (i.e. ESA Clean Space mission) Indeed I know who i am writing to, Dr. Alice Gorman, or maybe I don’t know. This said to underline that I should know I am not alone thinking about this. Anyway I am looking forward to develop this topic in Ravenna (Univeristy of Bologna) and I am willing to connect this topic to the concept of architecture of peace and the cooperation between nation as a planetary culture for the ‘future’. I’d like to call it a path to international cooperation through the comprehension and consciousness of the heritage of space archaeology.
    This is all why I tried to get in touch with experts like Roland Miller (from which I only got to buy the book) and I’d really love to have the chance to get in touch with you.

    It’s true, Philae has also touched (down) deeply into my heart when I saw more than a year ago the video ‘Ambition’ on youtube, no it s not hollywood nor (tear jerker) bollywood … nor ‘just’ poetry. It was a message on youtube delivered through what I believe were game of thrones featured actors that were explaining to Humanity the infinite importance of this mission (while I am writing I can t stop the goosbumps emotions…) so close, and so at the beginning of it too, to the discovery of our origins.
    The comets, water and the dreams. What the new mythology of space exploration can bring us to wonder again is a consciousness and understanding of way to few people today.
    I also do believe deeply in transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary (present) future as we also are in this deeply misunderstood and underEvaluated Singularity Era.

    What is a deeply specialized value for a discipline can assume a great wider and higer value to the discipline of origin concept as for an array of different more if these 2 or more words start to talk and explain their meaning.

    Coming back to topic, today we are going so fast that we need to explain what was that thing on that year (history and historical perspective building) otherwise all the value of the cooperation and peaceful competition made for space exploration and that is done today would and will be lost forever.

    Debris are a huge opportunity. We are made of debris, as we are a product of star dust living in a space craft called Earr in a sea of waves of different origin. As in Archaeology or other disciplines debries and trash can content can give away meaning and offer identity.

    I was deeply inspired from this post of yours and I could see your tears clearly through my eyes.

    From the humbleness of my position I hope this message will reach you well and that I will be able to learn more about this “personal” planetary quest I want to talk about in my thesis and gather more ideas, learn the good way to research in this topic that unites us all under the same heritage.

    Best regards,

    Mdp @marcodpaolo

  2. drspacejunk says:

    Thanks so much your comments, Marco. I’m very keen to learn more about your research. I’ll be in touch!

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