It looked like a still from a low-budget sci-fi movie. Someone, it seemed, had left a supermarket trolley on the Moon, its sticky-out legs suggesting it might fall over at any moment. That impression was surprisingly close to reality, because it turned out that the European Space Agency's Philae lander had finished its 10-year journey to Comet 67P on its side. When its anchoring harpoons failed to fire, the lander bounced back up into space, coming down in the shadow of a boulder or cliff, which blocked sunlight to its solar panels.
Despite its awkward landing, Philae was able to send a stream of data back to Earth before its batteries started to run out, including the first close-up images of the surface of a comet. Who knew that it would look like a giant, chocolate-dusted truffle? I loved the pictures beamed back from the lander and its mothership, named Rosetta (after the stone which was the key to cracking hieroglyphs) by someone who presumably had a classical education. In recent years we've had Chris Hadfield's wonderful tweets from the international space station, but this time the images are from deep space.
The Rosetta project has rightly caused huge excitement, dominating last week's news bulletins and recalling the long-distant days of 1969 when Neil Armstrong became the first human – not the first man, thank you very much – to walk on the Moon. It would have been nice to see more women among the ecstatic scientists at the ESA operations centre in Darmstadt, especially as one of the astronomers who spotted Comet 67P in 1969 was a woman, Svetlana Gerasimenko. Obviously the ESA scientists were exhausted as well as excited, which may account for the bizarre shirt worn by one of the lead scientists, Dr Matt Taylor. He has since apologised for appearing on television sporting images of women in bondage gear, a choice of clothing some female scientists interpreted as confirming the male atmosphere of space exploration.
In pictures: European Space Agency's Rosetta mission
In pictures: European Space Agency's Rosetta mission
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Image of Comet 67P/CG taken by the Philae lander from a distance of approximately 3km from the surface
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Rosetta's lander Philae took this parting shot of its mothership shortly after separation
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Parting shot of the Philae lander after separation, captured by one of Rosetta's cameras
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A technician celebrates after the successful landing of the Philae lander, in the control room at the ESA headquarters in Darmstadt
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Scientists celebrate at a mission observation centre in Toulouse, southern France as they receive information that Philae has landed on the Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet
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Astronomer Klim Ivanovych Churyumov, who discovered the comet 67P/ Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 1969, reacts after the successful landing of the Philae lander on the comet
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A model demonstrates how the landing device Philae, of the space probe Rosetta, stands on the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko at the press center of the satellite control center of the European Space Agency in Darmstadt, Germany
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An artist impression of Rosetta's lander Philae on the surface of comet
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Picture taken on October 28 by the navigation camera on Rosetta shows the boulder-strewn neck region of comet 67/P Churyumov-Gerasimenko. It was captured from a distance of 9.7 km from the center of the comet
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Picture taken on October 24 shows a raised plateau on the larger lobe of the comet
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The probe is supposed to fly to a comet and put down a small laboratory on the top of it
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A scientist from the European Space Agency with an airworthy copy of space probe 'Rosetta' in the control center in Darmstadt, Germany
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Maneuvers designed for the actual space probe are simulated with the replica. 'Rosetta' will be woken up from an energy saving hibernation after 957 days
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A European Space Agency employee sits in the control room for the Rosetta mission in Darmstadt, Germany
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Scientists at the European Space Agency are expecting their comet-chasing probe Rosetta to wake from almost three years of hibernation
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Europe's Rosetta probe on a NASA mission
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NASA is participating in the European Space Agency's Rosetta mission, whose goal is to observe one such space-bound icy dirt ball from up close for months on end
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An impression of the Philae lander
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ESA probe Rosetta with Mars in the background. The three-tonne probe blasted off aboard an an Ariane V rocket from Kourou, French Guiana in 2004
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Rosetta orbiter deploying the Philae lander to comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, the spacecraft measures 32 m across including the solar arrays, while the comet nucleus is thought to be about 4 km wide
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The spacecraft, festooned with 25 instruments between its lander and orbiter (including three from NASA), is programmed to 'wake up' from hibernation
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An Ariane V carrying the three-tonne probe Rosetta blasting off from Kourou, beginning a decade-long quest to hunt a comet in the depths of the Solar System and shadow it around the Sun in a bid to tease out secrets of how life began on Earth
Despite that, I can't help thinking that projects such as this one represent the best side of human nature. Space scientists are the modern equivalent of the explorers of earlier centuries, who mapped the Earth and demonstrated, among other things, that it isn't flat. I can barely begin to visualise Rosetta's extraordinary journey, which covered a distance more than five times greater than that between the Earth and the Sun. It all makes a pleasant change from the dreadful images which have dominated the news this year, showing dead bodies and ruined buildings in Syria and Iraq.
I don't imagine that the Rosetta project has stirred much interest among the idiots flocking to fight for the preposterous Isis (or whatever it happens to call itself this week). Isis is just one of the movements hostile to education, science and the enlightenment which seem to be stalking the world at present; they're to be found not just in the Middle East but in Africa, where the terrorist organisation Boko Haram seized the Nigerian town of Chibok two days ago. The same group is still holding hundreds of schoolgirls abducted from Chibok earlier in the year, bringing their education to an abrupt end and forcing them into sexual servitude.
This is not a good moment for those of us who want desperately to believe in human progress. The ghastly history of the 20th century seemed to have persuaded large numbers of people to abandon totalitarian ideologies, although unhappy exceptions (such as North Korea) remain. It's been an unwelcome shock to realise that the threat to progress in the 21st century comes from a more traditional quarter, in the form of an extreme religious movement which wants to impose a caliphate on large sections of the world.
At first sight the conflict is between modernity and mediaeval theology, but it's more complicated than that; al-Qaeda and its offshoots don't reject the modern world in its entirety, displaying a paradoxical enthusiasm for some forms of modern technology. Isis boasts about capturing sophisticated military hardware from its enemies, and its fighters are happy to use modern communication methods to show scenes of mediaeval cruelty, such as beheadings.
The billions of dollars Western countries pour into the arms industry are hardly a sign of progress, and I'm aware that the 20th-century space race had a military dimension. But I also know that every culture that's ever existed has produced individuals who want answers to the most profound questions: How did the universe start? Where did life on Earth come from? Are there similar forms of life on other planets? They've been opposed by powerful institutions such as the Catholic Church, whose history of banning books and ideas is grim by any standards.
Let's not forget that in 1633 the Inquisition summoned one of the greatest scientists of the age, Galileo Galilei, to Rome and forced him to recant his support for Copernicus's theory that the Earth revolves round the Sun. Galileo believed that his great invention, the telescope, had proved the theory but the Vatican was having none of it. He was found guilty of heresy and placed under house arrest for the rest of his life.
The conflict between reason and science on the one hand, and dogma and superstition on the other, is as old as history. Now it can be summed up in two images: the clunky Philae lander, on its side in the dust, versus lorry-loads of Isis fighters with their horrible black flags and uniforms. The contrast is vivid, reminding all but the most deluded that science and reason deserve to win the argument. I'm happy to be on the side of men and women who reach, literally, for the stars.Reuse content