Out there

Yesterday morning I got up, and immediately went to my computer. The sites didn’t load at first – I suspect they were getting overwhelmed, but eventually I managed to bring up the livestream from the ESA mission control. For those of us here on the west coast of the US, we didn’t have all that much time to have to worry and wait; by the time we got up yesterday morning, most of the seven-hour stretch of time between separation (of the lander from the probe) and landing was nearly over. But for those poor exhausted people at the ESA, they’d been waiting years for this. Because way, way out there in the deep vast emptiness of space, a couple hundred MILLION miles away from Earth, a little robot named Philae had finally detached from its carrier and was floating down to its new home. In the last few minutes before confirmation was expected, it felt as if the entire world held its collective breath. And then, suddenly, cheers from everyone there at the ESA mission control, and the Twitterverse exploded. It made it! We have landed on a comet!

Just a little over 100 years ago, humanity took its first tentative leaps into the air. Within my own lifetime, humanity built a space station that now orbits our planet. Over the past few decades, we’ve launched quite a few probes out into wild, sending them in every direction – some to distant planets within our own solar system, and some with the goal to go far, far beyond. One of those, sent out about ten years ago, was the Rosetta probe, carrying with it a refrigerator-sized lander they named Philae. For the past ten years, Rosetta has been chasing a large, vaguely duck-shaped comet, with the primary goal of placing the lander on its surface.

Yesterday, that little lander successfully settled onto the surface of a comet. Okay, maybe it didn’t quite stick the landing, and did a little dancing around. But the point is, it’s there now. Sitting out there, so far away from this planet that it is almost incomprehensible, on a comet. A COMET.

I keep clicking through this series that Randall Munroe drew as his own way of livestreaming the whole landing event. And it is hard not to get a little bit weepy every time I get to the end. Sometimes it’s too easy to lose sight of the bigger picture; to forget to look beyond all the petty political bickering and the mundane problems that are always around us. But look what we can do when we put our minds to it? Less than 50 years ago, we landed on the moon. Yesterday, we landed on a comet. Where will we go next?

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