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 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.
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.