Not very sunny here


a spacecraft © ESA–S. Corvaja; ESA–C. Carreau/ATG medialab; ESA, 2008 MPS for OSIRIS

The European Space Agency’s lander Philae tells us about its comet and its mother ship.

(From "Horizons" no. 104, March 2015)

"I’ve got what lots of people would like: a full-time research job. If everything goes well, my position will stay the same for the next five billion years. I just had to make the routine sacrifice – accompanying my boss Rosetta for ten years through pretty thin air. After brief research visits to two asteroids in 2008 and 2010, Rosetta was called to the Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet in August 2014. She promised me a stable position there with long-term support and lots of time for independent research.

It wasn’t easy for me to say ‘Churyumov-Gerasimenko’ in one go at first. The name’s shaped like a dumbbell, just like the comet itself. But the media attention has made it worthwhile – these days, every radio message I send is reported around the world. Just google ‘Philae’ and you’ll get 13 million hits.

My equipment’s pretty impressive too, including a stereoscopic panoramic camera system and harpoons with temperature sensors, a lot of it made in Switzerland. Incidentally, the thruster on my back (the one that didn’t work as planned) is also Swiss. But it’s not just because of my faulty jetpack that I’m such a scientific lightweight. The research environment isn’t as sunny as promised, either. I’ve not really been able to get properly settled yet, because the ground underneath me is too icy. What use is a sunset every 13 hours if you’re stuck behind a cliff? And there’s hardly any sign of long-term support. I only had two-and-a-half days for my first independent experiments.

Is this supposed to be a stable position? A plannable career would need a decent orbit. But every few decades, Churyumov-Gerasimenko gets too close to Jupiter and then flies off hundreds of millions of miles closer to the Sun. I don’t even want to know where that journey’s going to take us. If it gets hotter, the outgassing might even blow me into the comet’s tail. But it’s not the heat that’s a problem right now – it’s actually minus 70 degrees where I am.

And what about that independent research I was promised? Well, Rosetta has the last word in everything. All my communications to Earth go through her signal amplifier. ‘Rosetta’ gets 46 million hits on Google. The German Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote about my research activities and even said ‘Rosetta is considerably more productive’. And of course Rosetta has just had another whole series of papers published in Science without mentioning me even once. I’ve had enough. I’m going to put my feet up and turn off."

As recorded by Valentin Amrhein.

Communication division