Among the earliest forms of writing, Egyptian hieroglyphs were known long before they were deciphered. Despite the famed insanity of Napoleon, his visit to Egypt led to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone and we’ve been able to read what was once pure mystery for over a century now. A week ago today, Rosetta, a robotic space probe, landed on a comet in flight. For a guy who finds a rendezvous with a bus that runs on a supposedly regular schedule a challenge, this is nothing but mind-blowing. If you know the math, you’ll go far. Comets, you see, have long been the provenance of both religion and science. The ancients, apart from being very religious, we also first rate astronomers. Limited by a universe that circled the earth, they nevertheless figured out how to predict things like solstices and eclipses and phases of the moon. Some suggest that megalithic structures as impressive as Stonehenge and the pyramids of Giza were aligned to significant celestial events. The eyes in the skies.
Comets were generally considered harbingers. Even in ancient times they were difficult to figure out; their orbits aren’t easily deciphered and some never survive their close encounter with Old Sol. Still, they can be impressive. Living in the cloudier climes, glimpsing comets is not a guarantee. Light pollution, especially on the horizon, interferes with all kinds of observations. Now, however, the European Space Agency has shown us that it can be done without seeing where you’re going. A decade of travel time, after at least as long of planning for the trip, and you can boldly go where no person has gone before. Recordings of the electromagnetic frequencies, translated into human audible range, confirm everything from Predator to Signs. 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko has its day in the sun and 2001 every day comes closer.
Just a year ago comet ISON disappointed many in its failure to live up to the hype. In our workaday world, we’re eager for a harbinger of some kind. A sign that something out there can still evoke wonder. Comets have long been stripped of their religious garb. They are merely rocks and ice lit up by the sun on their weary trek through the cold loneliness of space. Still, landing on a comet can’t help but change our perspective. It’s like looking at the earth from the moon. Or Mars. We name our planets after gods, but comets bear the names of human discoverers. And we have constructed our own Rosetta stone to read the mysteries of the universe. Meanwhile, the bus waits for no one. If you calculate the trajectory correctly, you’ll hopefully get to work on time. And that, after all, is what really matters.