Planetary Society: We Can Afford to Orbit Humans at Mars by 2033

Mars! Martian meteorites make their way to Earth after being ejected from Mars by a meteor impact on the Red Planet. Image: NASA/National Space Science Data Center.
Mars! Martian meteorites make their way to Earth after being ejected from Mars by a meteor impact on the Red Planet. Image: NASA/National Space Science Data Center.

Start your clocks. If the Planetary Society gets its wish, humans will be lifting off for the Red Planet eighteen years from now. That’s the conclusion of 70 experts in various fields relating to human spaceflight convened by the well-known planetary science advocacy organization, as announced today.  A full report describing their conclusions will be released later this year, but in the mean time, let’s take a look at some of the plan’s basic tenants:

  • Constrain costs by limiting new technology development
  • Need to “get on the road” by 2033
  • An orbital mission first will provide valuable experience and opportunities for science
  • NASA can afford the mission using funds currently devoted to the ISS
  • Land a crew by the end of the 2030s
  • Broad support expected for an orbit-first plan
  • Need to establish means for industry and international partners to participate

Constraining costs: At the height of the Cold War, NASA spent more than $110 billion in a decade to land twelve men on the surface of the Moon. That kind of outlay simply isn’t going to happen today. In order to enable a crewed Mars mission without seeking a dramatic expansion of the agency’s budget, NASA will need to reuse a lot of technology originally developed for things like the International Space Station (ISS). This will come with a side benefit: technology development can be extremely time-intensive and is frequently the source of program delays. The more repurposed technology used, the less likely the mission is to run over schedule.

A 2033 launch: This seems plausible, but only if NASA maintains focus. Too frequently in the past, human spaceflight programs have faced constant redirection. Think of the transition from Constellation to the extended Shuttle program to the Space Launch System and continuing questions regarding the Asteroid Retrieval Mission. If NASA is going to undertake this mission, it will need to survive the transition between at least three (and as many as six!) presidential administrations. That’s no easy feat.

Science from orbit: There is little doubt that orbiting Mars before attempting a landing would provide valuable experience. This is the exact path tread by the Apollo program to great success. But, what of the Society’s claim that such an orbiting mission would provide valuable science opportunities? That’s a little tougher to gauge. Until the full plan is released later this year, it’s tough to know what they have in mind. Certainly, it would be an invaluable opportunity to study the effects of long-duration spaceflight on humans outside of the protection of the Earth’s magnetic field. But, I’m skeptical of any claim about performing orbital Mars science. Just like with the Asteroid Retrieval Mission, it seems likely that any science could be accomplished at a far lower cost through robotic explorers.

Planetary Society CEO Bill Nye addresses the workshop. Photo Credit: Tushar Dayal for The Planetary Society
Planetary Society CEO Bill Nye addresses the workshop. Photo Credit: Tushar Dayal for The Planetary Society

Raiding the ISS piggy bank: This is perhaps the most interesting piece of the plan. In the wake of Russia’s announcement that they intend to pull out of the ISS collaboration after 2024, the future of America’s presence in Low Earth Orbit has been in question. The Planetary Society provides one possible answer: by using the funds currently earmarked for maintaining the orbiting laboratory, NASA could execute a crewed trip to Mars without needing a budgetary increase above that which accounts for inflation. This is a big deal because NASA funding is projected to remain flat for the foreseeable future.

Touching down before 2040: Regardless of the scientific case for orbital flights, the real scientific promise of human trip to Mars lies on the surface. Astronauts can cover far more ground and do so far more efficiently than their robotic counterparts, so getting people on the surface has to be the ultimate goal. Is 2040 too ambitious given a 2033 orbital launch? I’m not sure, but it’s certainly more realistic than claims made by SpaceX and Mars One.

Support from the public: We can only hope. I think if it was clear that substantial, legitimate progress was being made towards the clear goal of getting humans to Mars by 2033, the public would tune in. But keeping attention on an 20+ year project is no mean feat. Smaller, intermediate goals, a la the Mercury and Gemini programs, will be vital.

A broad coalition: NASA’s willingness to turn over ISS cargo and crew deliveries to private space companies bodes well for continuing these collaborations in the future. But allowing others to service their already-established outpost and joining with them on what will be the next great exploration project are two different things. Also remaining to be seen: will NASA (at the behest of the US Congress) continue to shun burgeoning space power China? Going to Mars will be tough. Why make it tougher than necessary?

Final thoughts: This is an exciting proposal by an organization with a credible history. Moreover, the list of participants in the recent workshop is impressive. The information released today is just the tip of the iceberg, but it has already got me thinking about what the future might hold. One thought that I can’t get out of my mind, though: is an orbital mission an unnecessary risk? Trips to Mars are measured in months, not days, and would put astronauts at unprecedented risk. Would we be drawing out those risks with an orbital mission without really accomplishing a lot of scientific discovery? We’ll have to wait for more details to truly find out.

Will Space Play in the 2016 US Election?

It might be only March of 2015, but the race (slog?) is on to be the next president of the United States. Only 589 days to go! It’s a race that some believe will cost the nation upwards of five billion dollars; that’s about 7.5 Mars missions for those of you out there counting. The campaign, though, is more than just a vehicle for terrible campaign ads and embarrassing debate gaffes; it’s also one of the few opportunities for the country to have a discussion about its  national priorities in the coming years. So, what are the chances that the exploration of space will be in that discussion?

Scientific research is a low priority for most Americans. Credit: Pew Research Center
Scientific research is a low priority for most Americans. Credit: Pew Research Center

On the surface, the odds don’t seem that favorable. Back in January, the Pew Research Center surveyed Americans to determine which issues citizens felt their leaders should be prioritizing. Space exploration wasn’t called out as its own topic, but of the 23 possibilities considered by Pew, “scientific research” was ranked third-to-last, representing a priority for just over half of Democrats and a third of Republicans. The margin of error for the smallest subgroup was 6.1 percentage points. The poll shows that the public is as concerned as ever with the perennial “big issues”: the War on Terror, the economy and jobs, and social services like education and Social Security. These will undoubtedly dominate the national conversation and leave little room for discussion of our scientific priorities. And, even if science does see the light of day during the campaign, politicians tend to look for places of disagreement. As NASA remains one of the government agencies most favored by citizens, it’s not likely to stir up much trouble here either.

Peer a little closer, though, and many potential candidates have strong ties to the space exploration industry. Headlining this group is the only high-profile contender to have officially declared himself: Senator Ted Cruz (R, TX). Sen. Cruz is the new chairman of the Space, Science, and Competitiveness subcommittee, the Senate body which oversees NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF). Joining him on the subcommittee is another likely presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio (R, FL). Florida, of course, is home to Kennedy Space Center, the launch complex for most US space activities. The economic impact of the so-called “Space Coast” puts space exploration at the forefront of Florida politicians’ minds and the state was also formerly lead by yet another likely Republican presidential candidate, Gov. Jeb Bush.

On the Democratic side, the picture remains much murkier. With no one so far willing to declare themselves running while former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remains on the fence, the need for speculation is much higher. But, both Secretary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden ran campaigns in 2008, offering us a glimpse at how space might play in their future endeavors. Then-Senator Biden had little to say on space during his campaign, although he did advocate for working with China as an equal partner, a view that might still draw some criticism today. Then-Senator Clinton spoke more broadly on her views for space, but it never truly entered the mainstream of the debate.

Disagreement between Democrats and Republicans is highest among scientific issues. Credit: Pew Research Center
Disagreement between Democrats and Republicans is highest among scientific issues. Credit: Pew Research Center

Even if space exploration doesn’t become a central issue of the coming campaign, it could well leak in from another direction: climate change. NASA is at the forefront of climate science research and considers it a core tenet of its research mandate. During the 2008 campaign, Clinton supported the expansion of NASA’s Earth observing program. Earlier this month, Sen. Cruz took the opposite position, suggesting to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden that the agency focus more on exploring outer space and less on studying the Earth. With climate change likely to become a flashpoint during the campaign (the Pew poll discussed above shows climate science research is a priority for 54% of Democrats, but just 15% of Republicans), NASA and the NSF might find themselves dragged into the larger fight.

Finally, what about all the candidates down the ballot? Will space exploration be important in House, Senate, and gubernatorial races? What about the myriad of local and state elections? The answer here is probably a more definitive “no.” Unlike most other issues, space exploration is one that resides virtually solely at the federal level. With the possible exception of a few space-heavy regions like Florida and Texas, issues like education, unemployment, and taxation are far more likely to dominate the conversation.

If there’s one truth about elections, however, it’s that you never really know if something will be important until it happens. With that in mind, we’ll continue to keep an eye on the coming races to see if outer space become a down-to-Earth issue!

Are Asteroids the Future of Planetary Science?

The asteroid Vesta as seen by the Dawn spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCAL/MPS/DLR/IDA

I don’t think I ever learned one of those little rhymes – My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas – to memorize the order of the planets, but if I had, it would’ve painted for me a minimalist picture of the solar system. (Side question: what is my Very Educated Mother serving now that we only have Dwarf Pizzas?) After all, much of the most exciting work in planetary science today happens not at the planets, but around them.

Ask an astronomer where in the solar system she’d like to visit next and you’re just as likely to hear Europa, Enceladus, Titan, or Triton as you are Venus, Mars, or Neptune. Our solar system hosts eight planets but nearly 200 known moons. And moons, it turns out, are just the start. We’ve detected more than a million asteroids; surely that’s just a fraction of what’s lurking beyond our limits of observation. Let’s not even think about the billions, perhaps even trillions, of Kuiper belt and Oort cloud objects – we could be here all day! So, while the planets may dominate the solar system gravitationally, they are pitiful numerically.

If there is one thing that the study of exoplanets has taught us in the last twenty years, it’s that the Universe thrives on chance. Given enough planets (and there appear to be gazillions out there!), practically anything can happen. Want a planet with a double sunset? We’ve got that, but perhaps you’d prefer one with three! How about a planet whose temperature is nearly half that of the surface of the Sun? No problem there. I can even offer you a planet ten times more massive than Jupiter, but nearly 20 times closer to its star than Mercury (probably not the best place for your first off-world vacation home…). The point is, with only a few thousand planets discovered, what we’ve seen already is astonishing. Imagine what those million asteroids could be hiding.

In fact, asteroids might be the next great frontier in planetary science. Let’s find out why.

An artist's impression of the rings around Chariklo. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada/M. Kornmesser/Nick Risinger (
An artist’s impression of the rings around Chariklo. Credit:
ESO/L. Calçada/M. Kornmesser/Nick Risinger (

Suppose I ask you to think about the planet Saturn. What’s the first thing that jumps to mind? Probably its rings. And, if you were paying attention around the time you learned one of those nifty rhymes, you might recall that Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune also have rings. But, did you know that at least one asteroid is also home to a ring system? Called Chariklo, it’s the largest known of a family of asteroids trapped between the orbits of the outer planets. Early last year, astronomers reported the detection of a ring system about this 250-kilometer sized object. I say a ring system because there appear to be at least two distinct rings encircling Chariklo. Discovering this new system is more than just an additional data point. Perhaps the paramount question facing the field of planetary rings today is how they formed and how long they can last; the existence of rings around a tiny asteroid tells a very different story than that implied by the giant planets.

Of course, rings haven’t been the biggest planetary science story of the last decade (much to my chagrin as a rings researcher!). That honor might instead lie with geysers. The 2005 discovery of an enormous water plume emanating from the surface of Saturn’s moon Enceladus changed the way we looked at the icy moons of the solar system. Eight years later, astronomers using Hubble claimed to have found a similar phenomenon at Jupiter’s moon Europa (now they’re not so sure). But geysers, too, might not be the sole province of planetary moons. Just last year, researchers with the Herschel Space Telescope found the first evidence for water vapor emanating from the surface of the enormous asteroid Ceres! There’s more good news: unlike Europa, with its off-in-the-future mission, the Dawn spacecraft is on its way to Ceres right now. It will arrive in just under two months and provide a close-up look at the second confirmed off-world geyser.

Speaking of moons, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that asteroids have those, too! In fact, the number of asteroids with known satellites is far too long to enumerate here. But, they are not merely numerous; the variety of asteroid moons seems to be nearly as large as the variety of asteroids themselves. Like with the planets, many asteroids dwarf their moons. Others, though, are more like binary systems in which both bodies are approximately the same size. And, although we generally know little about their shape, the variety in this realm also appears tremendous.

An artist's conception of how an unmanned spacecraft might redirect an asteroid into lunar orbit. Credit: NASA
An artist’s conception of how an unmanned spacecraft might redirect an asteroid into lunar orbit. Credit: NASA

Ultimately, though, it’s not their number or their variety that might make asteroids the future of planetary science; the laws of physics are on their side. It’s no accident that NASA intends to send astronauts to land on an asteroid long before they attempt to touch down on Mars. Neither is it a coincidence that at least three missions (Hayabusa, Hayabusa 2, and OSIRIS-REx) will have returned, or at least attempted to, samples from an asteroid to the Earth before NASA’s ambitious plan to do the same at Mars. The gravitational tug on the surface of the Red Planet is more than thirteen times more powerful than that of even the largest asteroid.

We’re seeing this accessibility in action already. Hayabusa returned a sample of asteroid Itokawa back in 2010 and its successor is already on its way. And, remember Dawn on its way to Ceres? It turns out that wasn’t its first stop. Before setting out for the solar system’s largest asteroid, the mission spent fourteen months in orbit about the asteroid Vesta. When it arrives at Ceres in March, Dawn will become the first spacecraft in history to orbit two extraterrestrial bodies.

Dawn is, I think, a signal of things to come. Asteroids, in general, and the main asteroid belt, in particular, offer the tantalizing opportunity to visit a variety of different worlds in one fell swoop. These are places that are closer to us, easier to approach, and just as scientifically interesting as the classical celestial worlds. Does this mean that the world’s science agencies will or even should abandon the study of the planets? Of course not. No asteroid looks like the cloud tops of Jupiter or the methane lakes of Titan or the intense heat of Venus. I’m not at all trying to limit the worlds which we visit. Quite the opposite, in fact: we’ve suddenly found a million new places to go!

How Did We Find the Distance to the Sun?

The Sun provides energy for life here on Earth through light and heat. Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

How far is the Sun? It seems as if one could hardly ask a more straightforward question. Yet this very inquiry bedeviled astronomers for more than two thousand years.

Certainly it’s a question of nearly unrivaled importance, overshadowed in history perhaps only by the search for the size and mass of the Earth. Known today as the astronomical unit, the distance serves as our reference within the solar system and the baseline for measuring all distances in the Universe.

Thinkers in Ancient Greece were among the first to try and construct a comprehensive model of the cosmos. With nothing but naked-eye observations, a few things could be worked out. The Moon loomed large in the sky so it was probably pretty close. Solar eclipses revealed that the Moon and Sun were almost exactly the same angular size, but the Sun was so much brighter that perhaps it was larger but farther away (this coincidence regarding the apparent size of the Sun and Moon has been of almost indescribable importance in advancing astronomy). The rest of the planets appeared no larger than the stars, yet seemed to move more rapidly; they were likely at some intermediate distance. But, could we do any better than these vague descriptions? With the invention of geometry, the answer became a resounding yes. Continue reading “How Did We Find the Distance to the Sun?”

Shooting “Color” in the Blackness of Space

A beautiful image of Sasturns tiny moon Daphnis, but where is all the color?

If NASA is so advanced, why are their pictures in black and white?

It’s a question that I’ve heard, in one form or another, for almost as long as I’ve been talking with the public about space. And, to be fair, it’s not a terrible inquiry. After all, the smartphone in my pocket can shoot something like ten high-resolution color images every second. It can automatically stitch them into a panorama, correct their color, and adjust their sharpness. All that for just a few hundred bucks, so why can’t our billion-dollar robots do the same?

The answer, it turns out, brings us to the intersection of science and the laws of nature. Let’s take a peek into what it takes to make a great space image…

Perhaps the one thing that people most underestimate about space exploration is the time it takes to execute a mission. Take Cassini, for example. It arrived at Saturn back in 2004 for a planned four-year mission. The journey to Saturn, however, is about seven years, meaning that the spacecraft launched way back in 1997. And planning for it? Instrument designs were being developed in the mid-1980s! So, when you next see an astonishing image of Titan or the rings here at Universe Today, remember that the camera taking those shots is using technology that’s almost 30 years old. That’s pretty amazing, if you ask me.

But even back in the 1980s, the technology to create color cameras had been developed. Mission designers simply choose not to use it, and they had a couple of great reasons for making that decision.

Perhaps the most practical reason is that color cameras simply don’t collect as much light. Each “pixel” on your smartphone sensor is really made up of four individual detectors: one red, one blue, two green (human eyes are more sensitive to green!). The camera’s software combines the values of those detectors into the final color value for a given pixel. But, what happens when a green photon hits a red detector? Nothing, and therein lies the problem. Color sensors only collect a fraction of the incoming light; the rest is simply lost information. That’s fine here on Earth, where light is more or less spewing everywhere at all times. But, the intensity of light follows one of those pesky inverse-square laws in physics, meaning that doubling your distance from a light source results in it looking only a quarter as bright.

That means that spacecraft orbiting Jupiter, which is about five times farther from the Sun than is the Earth, see only four percent as much light as we do. And Cassini at Saturn sees the Sun as one hundred times fainter than you or I. To make a good, clear image, space cameras need to make use of all the little light available to them, which means making do without those fancy color pixels.

A mosaic of images through different filters on NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. Image credit: NASA/SDO/Goddard Space Flight Center
A mosaic of images through different filters on NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. Image credit: NASA/SDO/Goddard Space Flight Center

The darkness of the solar system isn’t the only reason to avoid using a color camera. To the astronomer, light is everything. It’s essentially our only tool for understanding vast tracts of the Universe and so we must treat it carefully and glean from it every possible scrap of information. A red-blue-green color scheme like the one used in most cameras today is a blunt tool, splitting light up into just those three categories. What astronomers want is a scalpel, capable of discerning just how red, green, or blue the light is. But we can’t build a camera that has red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet pixels – that would do even worse in low light!

Instead, we use filters to test for light of very particular colors that are of interest scientifically. Some colors are so important that astronomers have given them particular names; H-alpha, for example, is a brilliant hue of red that marks the location of hydrogen throughout the galaxy. By placing an H-alpha filter in front of the camera, we can see exactly where hydrogen is located in the image – useful! With filters, we can really pack in the colors. The Hubble Space Telescope’s Advanced Camera for Surveys, for example, carries with it 38 different filters for a vast array of tasks. But each image taken still looks grayscale, since we only have one bit of color information.

At this point, you’re probably saying to yourself “but, but, I KNOW I have seen color images from Hubble before!” In fact, you’ve probably never seen a grayscale Hubble image, so what’s up? It all comes from what’s called post-processing. Just like a color camera can combine color information from three detectors to make the image look true-to-life, astronomers can take three (or more!) images through different filters and combine them later to make a color picture. There are two main approaches to doing this, known colloquially as “true color” and “false color.”

A "true color" image of the surface of Jupiter's moon Europa as seen by the Galileo spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute
A “true color” image of the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa as seen by the Galileo spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute

True color images strive to work just like your smartphone camera. The spacecraft captures images through filters which span the visible spectrum, so that, when combined, the result is similar to what you’d see with your own eyes. The recently released Galileo image of Europa is a gorgeous example of this.

Our eyes would never see the Crab Nebula as this Hubble image shows it. Image credit: NASA, ESA, J. Hester and A. Loll (Arizona State University)
Our eyes would never see the Crab Nebula as this Hubble image shows it. Image credit: NASA, ESA, J. Hester and A. Loll (Arizona State University)

False color images aren’t limited by what our human eyes can see. They assign different colors to different features within an image. Take this famous image of the Crab Nebula, for instance. The red in the image traces oxygen atoms that have had electrons stripped away. Blue traces normal oxygen and green indicates sulfur. The result is a gorgeous image, but not one that we could ever hope to see for ourselves.

So, if we can make color images, why don’t we always? Again, the laws of physics step in to spoil the fun. For one, things in space are constantly moving, usually really, really quickly. Perhaps you saw the first color image of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko released recently. It’s kind of blurry, isn’t it? That’s because both the Rosetta spacecraft and the comet moved in the time it took to capture the three separate images. When combined, they don’t line up perfectly and the image blurs. Not great!

The first color image of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Image credit: ESA/Rosetta
The first color image of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Image credit: ESA/Rosetta

But it’s the inverse-square law that is the ultimate challenge here. Radio waves, as a form of light, also rapidly become weaker with distance. When it takes 90 minutes to send back a single HiRISE image from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, every shot counts and spending three on the same target doesn’t always make sense.

Finally, images, even color ones, are only one piece of the space exploration puzzle. Other observations, from measuring the velocity of dust grains to the composition of gases, are no less important to understanding the mysteries of nature. So, next time you see an eye-opening image, don’t mind that it’s in shades of gray. Just imagine everything else that lack of color is letting us learn.

Alone and Confused, Philae Breaks our Hearts

The Philae that could! The lander photographed during its descent by Rosetta. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for Rosetta Team/

I was twelve years old when Columbia disintegrated. Space exploration was not even a particular interest of mine at the time, but I remember exactly where I was when the news came.  My dad and I were sitting in the living room of my childhood home, listening to NPR. I don’t really recall how I felt when they broke into our program with the news, but I remember well the two emotions that seemed to permeate the coverage that soon become constant: confusion and sadness. As I watched the almost surreal saga of ESA’s Philae this week, I found my mind wandering back to that day eleven years ago. That confusion rang out was hardly surprising; after all, things weren’t going right and we didn’t know why. But it was the sadness, I think, that drew my mind into the past. Many of the countless people watching Philae’s distress unfold before us weren’t merely disappointed that a decades-in-the-making experiment wasn’t going as planned. The word heartbroken kept springing to mind.

Let me be unequivocal: the loss of a machine, no matter how valuable or beloved, pales in comparison to the forfeit of human life. The astronauts lost on Columbia, like those snatched from us before and since, left behind families, friends, and a grateful world. But, why, then, did it seem to feel so similar to so many people?

 “This is legitimately upsetting” a friend and colleague texted me on Friday as it became clear that the tiny lander’s batteries were beginning to run dry. She was far from alone in her sentiment. Across Twitter, people from around the world seemed to be lashing out against the helplessness of the situation.

And, in conversations I had with other scientists at the 46th annual Division for Planetary Sciences meeting in Tucson, AZ this week, people seemed almost mournful at the prospect of the lander’s loss. These same researchers had laughed and cheered just days earlier when shown the crater made by NASA’s LADEE spacecraft upon its crash into the lunar surface.

 The questions in my mind are numerous. What’s the cause of this inequity? Why do we seem to latch onto certain spacecraft and blithely ignore others? What is it that makes us become emotionally attached to machines in the first place? 

In part, I think, our attachment comes from the unprecedented view offered to us by social media. In 1990, an event not so dissimilar from this one beset NASA’s Galileo spacecraft. Flying by the Earth on its way to Jupiter, Galileo had just attempted to unfurl its main antenna, a maneuver critical to the mission’s success.  In mission control, they received the bad news: the antenna was stuck. But, the world did not break down in despair. In the days to come, stories would appear in newspapers and on the nightly news, but a world where even email was in its infancy lacked a means for the average citizen to follow along with every detail. 

Nineteen years later, this would not be the case. As soon as it became clear to those in ESA headquarters that something had gone very wrong during Philae’s descent, we all knew. And, as data began to trickle in about one bounce off the surface and then another, we all cringed. When the last power drained from the lander’s batteries, we followed along, one volt after another. Philae may have been the pride of the ESA scientists and engineers who designed it, but it felt like it was ours. 

But, it didn’t feel like ours in the way that a car or a plane or even a space station does. It felt like our friend. No doubt, this can be directly linked to the first person point of view employed for its Twitter account. Instead of the @Phillae2014 account reporting “the Ptolemy instrument has made a measurement,” we get “I just completed a @Philae_Ptolemy measurement!!” It seems like a small change, but it opens up a whole new world of connection with this distant traveler. At no time was this clearer than when things started to go wrong.

 How poignant is that? Two travelers talking to one another from across the solar system. But, as Philae’s time began to wind down, the messages tugged even more urgently on our heartstrings.

And, it all pales in comparison to the way China’s Yutu rover signed off when it looked like a malfunction might cause it to freeze to death on the Moon (original Chinese, CNN translation):

… my masters discovered something abnormal with my mechanical control system. …I’m aware that I might not survive this lunar night…

The sun has fallen, and the temperature is dropping so quickly… to tell you all a secret, I don’t feel that sad. I was just in my own adventure story – and like every hero, I encountered a small problem.

Goodnight, Earth. Goodnight, humanity.

Talk about heartbreaking.

This personal point of view combines particularly effectively with landers and rovers. These craft seem more human than ships like Cassini or Galileo, with their silent glide through deep space. When something goes wrong with a surface explorer, as it did with Philae or Yutu, it plays on our deepest fears. Every time we’re lost, the little voice of panic begins to creep into our thoughts: “what if this is the time that I can’t get back?” Reading the “thoughts” of a tiny spacecraft, lost and alone and confused, puts us right there ourselves. As mission controllers edged towards desperation in their attempts to save the stricken explorer, we knew how that delirious urgency felt. Our attachment becomes almost unavoidable. 

So, what does this all mean? I think it’s a clear signal that people are engaged by the exploration of space. When it comes to us in the right way, on our terms, it’s a big hit. By anthropomorphizing these robots, we humanize the science that they do. Suddenly a machine more than 500 million kilometers away becomes more relatable than the scientists next door who control it. Perhaps ESA, NASA, and other space agencies can extend this relationship even further. Rather than springing to “life” upon liftoff, spacecraft can share with us their view of the entire process, starting not from space, but from the first drawings on an engineer’s blackboard.

One thing’s for sure, though. A relationship like that won’t make times like these any easier to handle.