Ten years ago humans launched this box into space. It was about the size of a couple refrigerators shoved together, and it had another box strapped to it that's sort of the size and shape of a doghouse. The target was this comet you've never heard of out past Jupiter. Back in August the refrigerators caught up to the comet, and early this morning it released the doghouse. Around 11am today that doghouse is going to harpoon the comet.
European Spacecraft Set to Harpoon a Comet Tomorrow | NASA
Early tomorrow morning [Nov 12], the European Space Agency's Rosetta
spacecraft will deploy its comet lander, "Philae
." A little over seven hours later (8 a.m. PST/11 a.m. EST), the experiment-laden, harpoon-firing Philae is scheduled to touch down on the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko
. It will be the first time in history that a spacecraft has attempted a soft landing on a comet. Rosetta is an international mission led by the European Space Agency (ESA), with instruments provided by its member states, and additional support and instruments provided by NASA.
"I know it sounds like something out of Moby Dick, but when you think about the gravity field of a comet, it makes a lot of sense to harpoon one," said Art Chmielewski, project manager for the U.S. participation in Rosetta, from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "Comet 67P has approximately 100,000 times less gravity than Earth does. So, if you don't want to float away, you have to go to extraordinary measures to attach yourself to its dusty surface. The Philae lander has two harpoons, shock-absorbing landing gear, and a drill located on each of the lander's three feet. It even has a small, upward-firing rocket engine. All this to help keep it on the surface."
This pic is one that the Philae lander took in October, showing the Rosetta probe it's riding (that's the big solar panel), with the comet in the background. (Source: European Space Agency, via Slate.com). The comet looks like two asteroids because it's got a really jankety shape, as shown below (photoshopped onto LA, to give a sense of scale--a totally, breathtakingly existentially mortifying sense of scale):
When I explained this whole thing to my wife last month, showing her the "Rosetta selfie" from the top of this post, her response was: "Thirty years ago some little boy had a dream of someday harpooning a comet, and here we are."
I don't know about the genders involved, but in the broad strokes, she's totally right.
When her brother was a kid someone asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up.
"A tractor!" he said.
No, they told him, You want to be a farmer, Paul; a farmer drives the tractor.
"No! I want to be a tractor on the moon!"
And he, of course, became an engineer (like his father) working for Whirlpool (like his father). And, on the one hand, this sounds sort of small, spending your life working on the control system for a washer or refining the circuit design for a dryer. It ain't plowing the moon or lassoing a star. It's not what little boys and girls dream of.
But I have one of those washers. I see washers and dryers that my father-in-law helped design in folks' houses all the time. These quite literally *mundane* engineers touch millions of lives daily, globally. In countless, tiny ways they've remade the world. To me, that really seems like the power of these big grand gestures, chasing the comets and roving Mars: That it sells humans on doing the daily little work to make being human a little less toil and a little more joy. I mean, for real, the guys and gals who designed the clamp to hold the doghouse to the refrigerators for 10 years, until this morning when that clamp had to do its one job right, they weren't Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey. They were little folks working in crappy cubicles to do their small part in totally altering the Universe. All great things happen this way, and all things that are the sum of many humans doing their little part are great.
So, Paul has a baby coming in about four weeks, and he isn't plowing the moon, but I think we can all agree that's fine: His work makes taking care of babies--who produce a huge volume of dirty laundry--that much easier, and you can't grow a damn thing on the moon, anyway; it never *rains* there, kid. #sheesh
Wanna watch the harpoon-landing live? There's a webcast for that; tune in!