Maybe it’s because I can clearly recall the first time a man stepped onto the surface of the Moon. Maybe it’s because science and technological innovation pique my interest on a regular basis. Whatever the case, I still can’t get over the fact that we sent an orbiter into space ten years ago and its probe landed on the intended comet on the intended day at the intended time. The fact that the biggest buzz about the event was whether or not the probe bounced upon landing and the fate of the solar panels given the topography of the comet is stunning.
Think about the last time you tried to rendezvous with friends at an airport, a movie theater, or a restaurant. You all likely started from locations that were within miles of one another and even knew precisely where you were the entire time you were travelling, yet chances are good at least one person didn’t make it on time. Now put that same scenario in place with 1990s technology and plan the rendezvous for ten years in the future. A bit daunting, isn’t it?
One thing’s for sure. If I ever doubted the second half of Newton’s First Law of Motion, I’m a believer now. Simply put, it states that an object in motion will remain in motion at the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. Space is a vacuum, which means there is no force to act upon a speeding orbiter—or comet. Neither is there wind or other climatological phenomena to alter the direction of an object moving through that vacuum.
For the ESA Rosetta orbiter that meant a meeting with Comet 67P was simply a matter of accurate math. But it was more than that when you consider it. It was a matter of exceptionally accurate math at a level that most of us can’t comprehend given that both the satellite and the comet were in motion on their own individual paths and travelling at 42, 000 miles per hour. When they met on August 6, 2014, they were more than 400 million km (249 million miles) from Earth. When the Philae probe landed on the comet on November 12, 2014, they had been moving through space for several months, still millions of km from Earth.
Those involved in this mission are understandably proud. To envision, plan, and accomplish a project that was 30 years in the making is to realize the ambitions of a career. For the path to that success to cover a six-billion kilometers (3.7 billion miles) trek through space at a cost of $1.7 billion? If that’s not enough to cause us to sit up and take notice, what does it take?
Gina Hagler is a freelance writer and published author who covers science, technology, health, climate change, bubbles, and species survival–among other topics. She is a member of the National Association of Science Writers (NASW) and the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA). You’ll find more of her work at www.ginahagler.com.