Category: Science

Philae Has Landed!

Artist's conception of the Philae lander approaching Comet 67P

Artist’s conception of the Philae lander approaching Comet 67P


The most significant space science accomplishment of my almost 70-year lifetime took place at 8:03 a.m. today Pacific Time when the European Space Agency (ESA) soft-landed a relatively tiny 220-pound refrigerator-sized module on the surface of a speeding comet known as 67P. In true modern-age fashion, the spacecraft tweeted, “Touchdown! My new address: #67P”.

The landing was the culmination of a 10-year mission which has had Philae’s “mother ship”, dubbed Rosetta, pacing 67P through space and taking very close-up measurements of the comet.

This is a mind-blowingly complex mission, an order of magnitude more challenging, scientists say, than hitting an asteroid. Asteroid orbits are relatively predictable; comets not so much. And with tolerances in the millimeter range for some of the machinations needed to accomplish this feat, that makes the situation far more fluid than any other mission we’ve tried.

It appears that when Philae landed, some or all of the harpoons scientists invented to anchor the lander to the comet’s surface failed to deploy, although five hours after touchdown scientists were still evaluating that data. There is an indication that the lander actually may have bounced on landing and then re-landed. Obviously, the gravity on the surface of something as tiny as a comet is extremely low. That was one of the many huge challenges space scientists faced when planning this mission.

There are a couple of other, less discussed perhaps less obvious aspects of the Rosetta mission and the Philae landing that have drawn me in. I’ll be writing separate posts on these today or tomorrow.

UPDATE: I have written those posts. Here is the one on the global aspects of the accomplishment and here is the one about the relationship between the Rosetta-Philae mission and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

European Space Agency Logo

European Space Agency (ESA) Logo

The first is the fact that this is truly an international accomplishment of the highest order. It proves — perhaps more than any other single undertaking — the viability of the European Union. That, in turn, holds such great hope for the future of humanity that in my dark moments when I contemplate the extinction of the species due to global climate change, I think first not of the United States but of the European Union as the source of inspiration and global cooperation. It’s by far the biggest antidote to the fake American Exceptionalism movement I can think of.

SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) Institute Logo

SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) Institute Logo

Second, the implications of this mission for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence are hard to overstate. For more years than I can remember any other single interest in my life, I’ve been interested in that subject. This mission has reawakened that focus and while it hasn’t (yet) turned it into a passion, it is certainly stirring my inner juices and driving my curiosity to new levels.

Thanks, ESA, Rosetta and Philae! You are providing an old(er) man with some real intellectual passion that transcends the usual day-to-day of my exciting but somewhat predictable existence.


Mind-Blowing Space News: Rosetta Philae Landing on Comet Wednesday Morning!

Some time just after midnight Wednesday morning, the European Space Agency’s phenomenally interesting Rosetta mission will launch a small, lightweight landing craft at a tiny portion of the minuscule surface of an asteroid. The craft, called Philae, will require approximately 7 hours to fall to the asteroid using the latter’s weak gravity, a distance of about 14 miles. (Rosetta has lately been pacing the comet at a distance of about 4.5 miles.)

As Philae touches down on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, it will fire a harpoon into the asteroid’s surface designed to keep it from being blown off by the motion of the rock as it whizzes through space. Then, for the next 2-1/2 days, until its batteries are drained, Philae will conduct some of the most important and intriguing scientific work in the history of space research.

The entire event is being broadcast live over the Internet at

Rosetta is already an unqualified success, having beamed back to Earth orders of magnitude more data about this one comet than all previous comet-studying missions combined. On its amazing 10-year journey, Rosetta has gone through three separate slingshot-acceleration trips around Earth to get its speed to where it needed to be to catch up with and then keep up with the comet.

The math, the science, the incredible precision involved in a mission of this complexity is really breathtaking. To someone like me — a science and s-f nut who clearly remembers Sputnik — it is utterly amazing.

And the fact that this mission is almost entirely a non-NASA event is equally amazing and breathtaking…and significant. This is, perhaps alongside the International Space Station, one of the many reasons I am convinced that my spiritual teachings about Oneness — teachings which I know to many seem so far removed from science — will ultimately be proven true. Because humanity, working together, is finding itself capable of performing feats of extraordinary imagination and precision at once.

Interested in finding out even more about this incredible mission? Here are some of my favorite resources:

  • Excellent overview of the mission by New York Times science writer Kenneth Chang.
  • The aforementioned webcast location
  • “Where is Rosetta?” 3D imaging of the mission and the comet
  • Full 63-page Rosetta press kit including detailed timeline of landing and initial science work


How the Philae Lander will attach itself to Comet 67P for On-Comet Exploration

How the Philae Lander will attach itself to Comet 67P for On-Comet Exploration

Intriguing Structures Detected in Lunar Gravity Study

Graviy map of the lunar surface showing large, semi-regular shapes

Gravity Maps of the Lunar Surface. Note semi-regular large black shapes in left image, likely caused by cooling lava flows from inside the moon.

NASA’s GRAIL (Gravity Recovery and Internal Laboratory) mission has brought to light some interesting structures on the Lunar surface never before seen. They indicate a likelihood that cooling lava flows from the moon’s interior are responsible for some if not all of the ridges seen in locations isolated from meteor cratering.

“Scientists have previously speculated that the vast lunar depression may have been caused by an impact with an asteroid or comet. But now a new analysis of gravitational data gathered by NASA’s GRAIL mission suggests that the ridges around the depression are more likely remnants of an ‘ancient magma plumbing system,'” according to a story in the Christian Science Monitor.

For much of my life I was interested in lunar astronomy. I spent hundreds of hours examining its surface, drawing maps, reading books about it and just wondering what exactly all of its dark blotches, striations, circles, rays and other markings might be, and how they came to be there. So the GRAIL mission has been a particularly interesting one. The techniques used are the utmost of simplicity, the math no more complex than high school geometry, and the findings — as many good science discoveries do — raise at least as many new questions as they answer.

And the experiment re-confirms one of my favorite observations about science. It is an open-ended study, always only as good, reliable, clear and definitive as the quality and precision of its latest measuring instruments and their recordings (human or automatic). In other words, science’s great limitation is that of measurement, or instrumentation. The fact that science has not (yet?) penetrated or studied the phenomenon of consciousness, for example, is for me a simple matter of not yet having been able to determine what about it is measurable and then how to measure it.

Does this mean I think science will ultimately explain everything? No. But it does mean that science, like its philosophical counterpart, metaphysics, must not be viewed as permanently constrained by what it understands today about what to measure and how to measure it. The mystery in both studies is at least theoretically infinite and eternal. And therein lies their beauty.

With GMOs, Should Government or Consumers Prevail?

The decision this week by General Mills shareholders to reject a proposal to remove all genetically modified organisms (GMOs) from its products brought into stark relief the controversy surrounding whether government regulation or consumer choice ought to govern that issue in the marketplace.

Almost 98% of the company’s shareholders voted no on the proposal, which was brought forth by the granddaughter of one of the company’s founders. Right-wing think tanks, long opposed to any government regulation of GMOs, see this development as a victory for free enterprise capitalism and consumer choice.

GMOLabelingThis conflict has created some interesting bed partners. On the one hand, liberals who mostly favor science and support its advance, find themselves opposed to artificially modifying DNA. In this position, they find themselves strangely aligned with a rabid Right which is simply and blindly opposed to any and all government regulations.

The question seems to me to be worth debating. In a free market, consumers vote with their dollars. It is up to them whether to purchase and consume food that contains GMOs. However, those who oppose such foods insist that there is at least a strong potential for public health consequences of the consumption of substances, the long-term effects of which are simply unknown, and in fact unknowable.

I find myself somewhere in the middle. I strongly approve of efforts to require labeling of all foods containing GMOs, a move which is also opposed by conservatives for reasons that completely escape me. But I think for the moment I’m inclined to stop short of banning those foods from the shelves. If we take the position as a society that only something which has been proven not to be harmful can be marketed, we will surely slow the advance of science and research to a crawl. It seems to me incumbent on our system to do the best job it can of protecting us against known peril and then to allow the marketplace to sort things out, rather than to pre-emptively ban new products until they can prove the negative.

But I also confess that I am concerned about allowing greedy corporations simply to unleash untested products for consumption by an unsuspecting and largely uneducated public. Still, until and unless some evidence emerges proving that GMOs are dangerous, I will remain in favor of allowing them with appropriate labeling.

European Space Agency About to Land on a Comet, Enhancing Chance for World Peace

The European Space Agency (ESA) is scheduled to land an exploratory probe on the surface of a comet on Nov. 11, which happens to be the same day Europeans and Americans celebrate the end of World War II. Coincidence? I doubt it.

Rosetta and Philae Package

Rosetta and Philae Package

The agency announced this week the final determination of a landing site on Comet 67P and will make final determinations about the mission between Oct. 12 and 14 preparatory to the landing.This will be the first controlled touch-down on a comet nucleus ever attempted by Man. The slate of exploratory and scientific missions to be carried out by the 100-kilogram Philae comet lander is impressive. By the time scientists are done analyzing the data years from now we will now a lot more about these once-mysterious planetary visitors that were always seen as bringing divine messages — generally of doom and calamity — to earth from the distance gods.

The scientific mission isn’t the only interesting thing about this mission, being carried out on the Rosetta spacecraft. The surface of the comet has almost no atmosphere. If Philae were to land hard on the surface, it would simply bounce off into space. So the ESA engineers who designed the mission have come up with an incredibly brilliant plan: they’ll use a combination of harpoons to tether the package to the surface and counter-thrusting engines in the package itself to keep it safely stationary on the surface of the comet. How cool is that!?

There was a lively — and quite humorous, pun-filled — discussion of the mission on Daily Kos today. Several participants in that conversation bemoaned the fact that this mission is being conducted by ESA and not NASA. I frankly find that development to be positive and encouraging. Here’s what I posted by way of explanation of that view:

The more nations that go into space, the more information we’ll obtain as a species and the more borders will be collapsed at the frontiers of Science. The exploration of Space, beaconed for the moment by the International Space Station, is the forefront of a future in which nationalism begins to play a smaller and smaller role.

Short-sighted thinkers like Putin [referencing one commenter’s observation that the U.S. will not be able to depend on Russia for transport to and from the Space Station] will give way, gradually to be sure, to those who have an expanded vision of Earth as Planet rather than Earth as Home of Many Nations. As that happens, we’ll find barriers dropping on Gaia as well. I see space exploration as a shining and extremely optimistic forefront of the future of the human race.

Besides we may need to get out of here on short notice when global warming kicks over the tipping point. Yikes!

In another post, I said,

I feel like standing on top of my house sporting pom poms and shouting “ESA! ESA! ESA!”

OK maybe not.

But as an old sci-fi and astronomy fan, I am tingling with excitement at this mission…and moreso because it’s being carried out by another nation.

The Looming End of Seafood

fish_extinctionThis one’s not directly the fault of global climate change. But it is the direct result of the actions of humans. We are on the verge of wiping out — rendering extinct — virtually all of the large fish we as humans enjoy eating. This means Atlantic salmon, tuna, halibut, swordfish, Atlantic cod, among others. There are only two apparent solutions:

  • fishing moratoriums
  • increased aquaculture

We are already on our way to adopting aquaculture more broadly; it accounts for almost half of the seafood we consume every year now. But the path to extinction of many species can’t be slowed or halted by that practice alone. The oceans must be allowed to regenerate from decades of selfish human action that has depleted the ranks of tasty seafood enormously.

Many of my environmentally-conscious friends argue against farm-raised seafood and favor buying only line-caught wild fish. While there may be a certain idealism associated with that approach, it is unrealistic to assume that by doing only those things we can continue to eat seafood and be responsible about it. The fact that farm-raised protein of other kinds — notably beef, pork, veal and poultry — is often accompanied by horrific environmental abuses including the drastic overuse of antibiotics, need not be an issue in aquaculture. There are proven technologies and farming approaches today that can avoid such abuses.

As seafood consumers, we can purchase some portion of our intake from farm-raised fish. And we can encourage the imposition of fishing bans in overfished areas of the ocean — which is almost the entire planet! — to give the oceans an opportunity to breathe again, to regenerate populations that are now 90% or more depleted.

If we don’t, we may be the last generation of humans to enjoy seafood, and those populations who depend for their lives on access to and consumption of seafood may find themselves becoming extinct due to lack of nutrition. This really is a matter of life and death.

Surprise! Insecticides Responsible for Honeybee Decimation

honeybeeDuring the past 10 or so years, the marked decline in honeybee populations worldwide has led to a great deal of concern about the future of humanity? Why? Because a huge majority of crops we consume rely on honeybees for fertilization. When the honeybees disappear, so will those foods.

In a study remarkable for its definitiveness, a Harvard-based study published in the Journal of Insectology confirms that the use of even sub-lethal doses of two specific insecticides is responsible for the phenomenon.

Interestingly, the European Union banned those two insecticides along with another suspect in 2013. Equally interestingly, the UK opted out of the ban. Today, honeybees are returning to previous levels throughout Europe except for the UK, which is experiencing “one of the worst rates of honeybee colony death in Europe.”

What is the U.S. position on this serious problem? From the EPA Web site: “The EPA is not currently banning or severely restricting the use of the neonicotinoid pesticides.” Instead, it is relying on the re-registration process that is currently in place and which has no hope of dealing with the problem in anything like the near future.


Wyoming Wants Its Own Version of Scientific Truth

The state of Wyoming has become the first in the nation to reject proposed national science teaching standards because the rules require the teaching of man-made global climate change as fact. The president of the state board of education says he wants to look into whether “we can’t get some standards that are Wyoming standards.”

Cool idea. Let’s give every state the right to set their own standards for what is scientific truth.

It’s not so surprising, really. Wyoming is (did you know this?) the nation’s largest coal-producing state. (Don’t tell West Virginians. They think they have that distinction and they’re entitled to their own version of the truth, don’t you know.)

The problem is that people in these backward and ignorant states get to vote in elections. And though I know it seems elitist — and probably is on some level — the fact is, an uneducated or, worse, misinformed, voter is worse than no vote at all. I’m a firm believer that we get the kind of government we deserve and want in this country. So if you look at Washington these days and shake your head and wonder how they can be so incredibly ignorant and incompetent, you need look no further than the ignorance of scientific and other fact bases that are perpetuated and staunchly defended by the Neanderthals and Luddites who run local school systems in some of these states and who scream “states’ rights” whenever an inconvenient truth rears its ugly head.

Education by ignorance harms all of us.

Awesome Video Clip on Homo Evolutus

I picked up this clip from Upworthy this morning. Wow. Visually mind-boggling and the ideas underneath are just as stimulating and exciting.

We have indeed reached a point where we have upstaged and overridden physical evolution. It is now up to us how we evolve spiritually and intellectually and psychically. We must reach a tipping point in this New Evolution if we are to survive as a species and it has always been necessity of survival that has driven evolutionary change and accelerated it.