So, space is cool again?

Rosetta
Artist’s impression of the Rosetta orbiter deploying the Philae lander to comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko (not to scale) © ESA–C. Carreau/ATG medialab.

I have to congratulate the European Space Agency. The interest and fervour they created around the space probe Rosetta ‘waking up’ from its 2.5-year hibernation yesterday was astonishing. I mean, in the grand scheme of the mission, which launched in 2004, this is just a small step really. What about when Rosetta actually reaches its comet destination in August, what about when it maps the surface, what about when it releases its lander Philae and actually touches down on the icy landscape of a body formed when the solar system did?

I’m not saying the waking-up-from-hibernation-sending-a-signal thing wasn’t cool, I’m just impressed by the amount of press and hype the ESA managed to create around this relatively minor mission stage. Twitter was chock-filled with it, and my Facebook feed this morning has people gushing about how sci-fi it all is.

Rosetta waking up seems to me to be a part of a recent trend: space is suddenly cool again. I’ve even noticed more and more ads on TV using space as their theme (selling everything from cars to take-out services). Of course, just because I’m noticing space more, doesn’t necessarily mean space missions actually are getting more coverage and interest from the public – this isn’t a scientific study, but it is an interesting thought experiment.

As a test, I went to the ESA website and clicked ‘All missions‘. What I got was an extremely colourful page covering 68 missions since the late 60s. Scanning the names, I recognised nearly none of them. Wait, there’s the Hubble Space Telescope! Then nothing again. These are not small-fry missions. Gaia, launched only in 2009, has a mission to ‘make the largest, most precise three-dimensional map of our Galaxy by surveying more than a thousand million stars’. Blimey.

And that’s just one space agency. Think of all the cool stuff NASA has done that you missed!

So, in a word, why? At least for me, the renewed interest in space has come via social media. Yes, that often-maligned scourge or saviour of the 21st century. I think space agencies have done a stellar job (no pun intended) of harnessing the power of share-ability. No doubt Rosetta’s wake-up campaign owed a great deal to NASA’s ‘Seven Minutes of Terror‘, a nail-biting tour of what it takes to land a car-sized rover safely on Mars.

The video, and ensuing live stream from NASA’s control centre made Curiosity (and the mohawked engineer) famous. But can you name the previous three rovers sent to Mars?

Then, there’s less orchestrated campaigns, like the humble Twitter feed of Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield. On his half-year stint as commander of the International Space Station, Hafield amassed over a million followers of his photos and videos, culminating in the first music video in space and a book.

I read the book. It seems like an autobiography, and indeed much of it is, but there’s one definite impression you come away with from it and all the publicity he does around it: he’s never seeking to promote himself. He really, truly believes in the importance of continuing space exploration, and he wants everyone else to feel the same way too. I think it’s working.

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