It took ten years plunging through the nameless void for Rosetta to rendezvous with Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, and they did it using the equations of motion laid down by the English philosopher, Isaac Newton, over 350 years ago.
They sent their Rosetta explorer out into the darkness on its ten-year journey because they thought they should, and the governments of Europe funded it because they thought they should.
These scientists did this, and they lived the project for a quarter century or more, not because they thought it would make them rich, but because, above all else, they were motivated by curiosity. That was why they sent their tiny emissary into the unspeakable vastness of space, somewhere between the orbits of Mars and Venus to meet and interrogate this comet, a thing from outer space.
Using infinitesimally-fine slingshot interactions with the planets, including three loops of Earth, five loops of the Sun and a fly-by of Mars, pursuing an impossibly-accurate arc across the void, following two years of energy-saving sleep the little explorer woke up, described an intricate series of triangular manoeuvres and finally settled about 30 km from the irregularly-shaped object that astronomers call Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.
It hasn’t reached its final orbit yet, and it won’t until the visionaries on Earth locate the comet’s centre of gravity and define its mass. When that happens, the explorer and the interplanetary mountain will become a pair for ever more.
It’s impossible not to be emotional about such an achievement.
They did it. They correctly analysed the trajectory of this object that wheels through the void in a vast elliptical orbit, an object so tiny by the scale of our solar system that, even though it’s the size of Mont Blanc, it becomes insignificant by comparison with the scale of its orbit. They listened to the music of the spheres, they sent out their tiny scout a full ten years in advance and somehow, in the vastness of Space, they found it. They found their tumbling mountain.
They still don’t know what it’s made of, which is wonderful, since science, if you pushed hard for a definition, is nothing more than structured inquiry. Science always looks for ways in which it was wrong. Science never states facts. It only reports findings, and those findings are always open to further inquiry. That’s what I personally love about the scientific outlook, as opposed to the oppressive certainty of so many ideologies. Science is always open to being corrected in the light of new information.
But whatever about that, scientists today are fully entitled to take a bow and have a beer or four. They stood on the shoulders of Newton the giant, they looked deep into his equations of gravitation, and they sent a little robotic explorer countless millions of miles to intercept a space-mountain.
They found it in the void, they joined it and now they’ll follow it.
This is magic. This is what enthralls young children when they lie on their backs and look out at the numberless stars of the Milky Way.
This is science and this is engineering, as they should be.
Shortly, once the orbit settles down, they’ll send Philae, a small lander, to the surface where it will harpoon itself to the space-whale.
Imagine if Philae found another small lander already there.