Thursday, November 27, 2014

"Darmstadt, the Philae has landed"; and Thoughts on Matters Cosmic and Petty (Update: More Photos)

On schedule, the Rosetta spacecraft of the European Space Agency arrived on station at the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (as I reported earlier) and launched the lander Philae, the first attempt at a soft landing on a comet.  Philae, about the size of a washing machine on a low tripod, was successful – mostly – in accomplishing its first and foremost mission of landing intact and functional.

The plan to deploy harpoons on the legs of the tripod apparently didn't work, but thrusters to help it bear down in the diaphanous gravity allowed it to come to a sliding stop, though up against a cliff face.  Initial signals from the lander came through but quickly attenuated to the point that Philae has gone into hibernation due to its solar panels not receiving an adequate amount of sunlight, blocked due to Philae's final position. 

First photo from the surface, showing the wall against which Philae stopped and one of its feet

It is expected that as 67P/C-G comes closer to the sun, the change in attitude of the comet and the increase in solar radiation will revive the lander. 
Sequence of Philae's descent, bounce, and final resting place, taken from Rosetta
Great excitement is being generated by the press in general with the news that the Rosetta and Philae system has detected "organic molecules" on the comet, which could add to the data that supports the theory that the building blocks of life on Earth could have come from comets crashing into the planet eons ago. 

A sub-text to this news is the argument that has been enjoined for a few centuries, since at least the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment if not earlier, of the question of whether life was created by God – or at least an Intelligent Design as it is now referred to in circles where such a discussion is allowed – or whether it arose as a result of a fortuitous comingling of elements that somehow led to living creatures, a phenomenon that can be reproduced elsewhere in the universe under ideal conditions, given enough time. 

I won't begin to engage in the debate here, but a strong undercurrent of the debate is a thrust to demonstrate that life could have been created by explainable scientific principles without having to rely on a belief in God.

An entire hypothesis has been formulated primarily through the efforts of British astrophysicist Sir Fred Hoyle (d 2001), a dedicated atheist who relented on his insistence that life had developed through natural means on Earth once it was demonstrated to him that such an event, given the time it would have taken, would have been (literally) astronomically impossible.  His concession of the point was to a fallback position that the elements of life were introduced to Earth through outside means, primarily through comets.  (This hypothesis would seem to spring from his earlier theory of nucleosynthesis, now widely accepted, that elements heavier than helium have been formed in the progressive life cycle of stars.)  The idea of 'panspermia' has gained some acceptance within the scientific community (including Stephen Hawking), yet whether or not it eventually has any realistic validity, it doesn't address the metaphysical question of the origin of life: if God did not create life spontaneously on Earth, then where did the life components of the comets (or wherever) come from, and did the metaphorical hand of God direct them to this very finely tuned cosmic petri dish that would allow life to flourish, certainly beyond the basic viral or bacteriological level of regenerated extremophiles?

But as to those organic molecules, lest the reading public become too enthusiastic with the news, one must remember that the term basically means that some form of carbon has been detected.  That could include such common compounds as methane and methanol, hardly conducive to life as we know it.  By that 'grubered' light, one could say that Jupiter could be teeming with life.

Yet I am also perplexed by the determination by some, particularly within the religious community, that we must somehow be alone in the universe, that God has somehow reserved the Earth exclusively within the impossibly imponderable vastness of the heavens to be the home of His children.  There is nothing in the Bible whatsoever that would indicate that God has not created other Gardens of Eden as distinct geneses.

And from the sublime to the ridiculous, a view of the other competitive news surrounding this seminal event perpetuates the lowly state of public attention to matters that should have real meaning.  One of the major news events at the time of the landing was the breathless and repetitive commentary on the bare derrière of the notable media prostitute Kim Kardashian, in a photo that had all the appearance of being a collaboration between Larry Flynt and Theodore Seuss.  (No, I won't post it here too.  Don't tell me you haven't already seen it – somewhere, everywhere.)

But a related story with an actual tie to the Philae landing involves the aftermath of an on-air interview with one of the key leaders of the effort, British physicist Matt Taylor.  It wasn't the interview itself that garnered the story, considering what should have been a spellbinding event, but rather the outcry about the (shall we say) eccentric Hawaiian-style shirt he wore, which included within the design a selection of cartoon pin-up girls sporting firearms, a gift from a female friend.  By all accounts, Dr Taylor is as brilliant as he is eccentrically insouciant, but the immediate backlash from the PC crowd, always on the lookout for an opportunity to be offended, reduced him to a tearful apology.  (Land on a comet?  Who cares; what about his shirt?!)

If only he had worn a burqa, these feminist harridans would have kept silent.

It's good to see that we have our priorities in order.

And speaking of order, a delightful twist is that the shirt in question almost immediately sold out.  Maybe the site will be able to fire up production on another series, but it will take at least eight weeks to catch up with the overwhelming number of orders.

It would be a good shirt for concealed carry too.

Update: Now we have a color photo of the comet:

... as well as a sense of scale, a representation of the comet resting on Los Angeles:
In contrast, 67P/C-G's long-axis diameter of 2.5 miles can be used to help visualize the Chicxulub meteor that impacted near present-day Yucutan, which caused the extinction-level event that wiped out the dinosaurs at the abrupt end of the Cretaceous period some 66 million years ago.  That meteor was estimated to have a diameter of at least 6 miles.

Considering some of the cultural detritus that LA represents, the above photo can be an almost appealing fantasy.


  1. Indeed, a wonderful choice, L.A., to demonstrate the, uh, impact.

  2. There is a chance you are qualified for a new government solar rebate program.
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