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Today is the final day of the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission which has been studying the comet 67P.  The Rosetta Space craft will land on the comet in a state of ‘passivity’ In other words, it will crash. Over the last few days, the public engagement stream of the project has been working hard to communicate the excitement and the significance of the findings of the the project.  The Twitter stream for the spacecraft is written in the first person and the  current mood is of proud reflection.

The Rosetta spacecraft was named for the Rosetta stone – a tablet carved in 1976BC that played a key role in 20th century decipherment of Hieroglyphs. In homage to this, it carries a small disk, etched in 1000 languages. But when the spacecraft lands it will bring with it a set of messages with important implications for how we use space and space exploration in future making.

A view of comet 67P "ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM, CC BY-SA IGO 3.0"

In August, two weeks before the European Space Agency uploaded these messages to Rosetta, communications between Rosetta and Philae, its lander on the comet, were switched off.  These messages are from anyone on earth who wanted to say goodbye to the lander. When Rosetta crashes, it is hoped that the data storage, and thus the messages, will survive the crash. What kinds of futures does this assemble, and how do they relate to similar practices in other contexts?

The Uncertainty theme of this project explores how different present practices position themselves in relation to the radical uncertainty of deep futures. One set of practices that we examine is the sending of messages to space. These messages always have a future audience, usually an alien one, sometimes conceived of as outliving humanity.

Our partner for this work is the One Earth Message (OEM) project, which will be crowdsourcing a message to upload to the New Horizons spacecraft as it exits the solar system, having passed Pluto, heading out into the galaxy. The selection of components for that message, the processes of negotiation and the technological practices involved in leaving it on a spacecraft to be found by unknown beings after the death of humanity, show the ways we reflect and construct ourselves in the mirror of forever.

Jon Lomberg, the leader of the OEM project has very long experience sending messages to space. He worked with Carl Sagan on the Sounds of Earth, a record pressed in gold and encased in instructions for use that was loaded on Voyager before its launch to explore the outer solar system. That project was quick and a handful of people made all the decisions: what to include; how to communicate with beings that may share nothing more with us than the capacity to send technology into space. A follow on project that sent a CD on the Viking lander to Mars had a similarly small project team, but a much closer audience. The CD, Visions of Mars, is a message to future humans as they land on Mars, to remind them of the dreams and stories that propelled them there. OEM seeks to broaden participation in deep space communication and in so doing bring the people of the world together to present ourselves to the universe. But while we all can contribute, the data space available is restricted, and the project team are keen to frame it as a message, that could conceivably be understood, rather than simply a set of sounds, texts and images. So the project team will select and compose a message from our contributions.

In the last few years many other messaging projects have been initiated, most of which will send your message to space for a fee. This individualisation and monetisation is entirely in keeping with neoliberalism and with the increasing privatisation of space exploration. There have also been gifts to celestial bodies, such as the small aluminium sculpture on the moon sometimes called the ‘fallen astronaut’ . and the Lego mini-figures which are on board the Juno spacecraft which will crash into Jupiter soon.

So there is a lineage, a heritage, to sending messages and pieces of ourselves to spacecraft, that can help us understand the #GoodbyePhilae messages. Although they are individualised, they are not monetised and while they do look to the future, they are framed by the European Space Agency as a goodbye, a memorial to a robot.

The Rosetta mission has had a major outreach component that uses social media extensively. Specifically, both Rosetta and the Philae lander have been anthropomorphised. They are the stars of a cartoon series popularising their explorations for children and each has a Twitter account. When Philae separated from Rosetta it was given a ‘younger brother persona’ and photos sent from the lander are referred to as postcards.

Philae has also taken on a ‘little robot that could’ character due to the problematic landing in which the robot bounced a number of times and came to rest in the shadow of a boulder. This has caused problems with communication and operations throughout the rest of the mission. Rather than being seen as a mistake, this has been largely experienced as a loss. When the lander went quiet as its solar generator couldn’t start up its systems, many of us were in tears. When the comet moved closer to the sun again, the lander ‘woke up’ slightly sooner than expected. There was some communication back with Rosetta, and then no more. Philae has been silent for nearly a year. Rosetta’s life span was coming to an end, and the mission team had decided to crash it into the comet. To conserve power at the end of the mission they decided to cut communications with Philae.

View of Commemorative plaque left on moon at Hadley-Apennine landing site. By NASA [public domain]


The Philae Twitter account sent out one last message

As goodbye messages, the responses to this are essentially a memorial, a requirement for the future to remember something that is important to us. Although focused in relation to a person or event, memorials are always about the people creating them as well. They are about immortality in the face of mortality. “They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old” This memorial has some awareness that the future may not be like the present. It calls upon an unknowable future to think of us, but also calls on us to imagine a future that might care to do so. So the messages represent a relatively unmediated view of what people on social media take from the mission, how they feel about it, how they want to be remembered in relation to it. In that, the #GoodbyePhilae upload creates a memorial future, related to, but distinct from other space messages.

Looking at the messages on Twitter groupings emerge. There is some thought of what the future might be, consideration of aliens finding the lander and these messages;

Contemplation of the lander travelling through space with the comet and seeing things but not communicating them with us;

Anxiety (slightly ironic but slightly sincere) around the V’ger narrative (the Star Trek story in which the Voyager spacecraft returns to earth many thousands of years hence to communicate its accumulated knowledge but attacks us because it does not recognise us as ‘the creator’)

The poster for Star Trek: the motion picture, the source of the V'Ger story

Philae asked for postcards, and a lot of the messages conform to classic postcard imagery – mostly landscapes, a lot of flowers, almost no animals. There is also a focus on ‘my place’ so gardens, views from windows, the beauty of the individual point of view.

— MGrey (@MartinaGrey1) 27 July 2016

But not all the photos are classic postcards. In keeping with the current zeitgeist, there are many selfies, a mix of groups and singles, often holding signs, which are usually messages addressed to Philae. These, in common with tweets without photos, usually thank Philae, or praise him for his efforts and say its time to rest. Quite a few say ‘thank you for your service’ which is a common phrase for thanking veterans in the US. All of these seem to suggest that the anthropomorphism allows people to identify with the robot as a friend, and by extension allows them to feel the extension of humanity into space.

But that attachment comes with sadness at the death of the robot. A lot of the tweets suggest genuine sadness, and a real sense of mortality.  While some tweets point to the anthropomorphism and the manipulative nature of the public engagement, the sense that the robot is dying calls to the concept of eternity.

There is also a fair amount of popular culture – movies: mostly but not all SciFi, especially the death scenes of robots

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears…in…rain. Time to die. – Replicant Roy Batty’s dying soliloquy in Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner

But also hopes for future loves.

There is a spattering of Shakespeare, and Thomas ‘do not go gentle into that good night’

People shared a wide range of music, but mostly  it is sentimental from the 1970’s, like this link to “Dust in the Wind’ by Kansas. Not necessarily the music we want humanity to be remembered by, simply the music the loss of the lander calls to mind.

There is almost no politics – except a tiny handful of jokes

The messages in this memorial have perhaps more in common with the flowers and teddy bears left at the sites of road side crashes, or those left to commemorate celebrities  than the wreaths left at war memorials (despite the military connotations of ‘service’). This suggests that the future of space exploration is shifting from the imaginaries of military conquest so prevalent in the 1960’s to one in which even the robots are individuals exploring and finding the freedom of space.

The personal nature of the memorial suggests that it is our own individual lives that should be remembered by the future, rather than an abstract or aggregate ‘humanity’ or even ‘nation’. Even where cultural references are included (such as music) it is personal taste and memory, rather than a pieces from a ‘canon’ or highlighting particular cultures. This is in contrast to the disk that was sent with the spacecraft when it was launched which has the more traditional future making task of saving human culture from oblivion.

It is also a very emotional message. Whether laughing or crying, this memorial humanises the robots of space futures by imbuing them with emotion. Future making is neither wholly rational nor wholly strategic but crystallises our hopes and fears.