Look up

Look up

Once upon a time… how the Rosetta mission won our hearts

With all data sent back to Earth, Rosetta signs off and descends to the comet’s surface. ESA, CC BY

Last Friday, September 30, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta mission, which explored the Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, reached its final conclusion and was heralded a resounding success.

The mission accomplished great technical feats. It was the first to place a spacecraft into orbit around a comet and Rosetta was in the hot-seat to watch the sun turn this cold icy object into a hive of activity.

In November 2014, Rosetta released Philae, the first probe to land on the surface of a comet. The probe ended up bouncing across the comet’s surfacing before coming to rest in the shadows. But it did spend three successful days gathering scientific data before its primary battery was drained and communication was lost.

Just a month before mission end, Philae was finally found. Main image and lander inset: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA; context: ESA/Rosetta/NavCam

The mission gathered a wealth of scientific information, as Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko became the most studied comet in history. The comet’s gravity has been mapped, its various surface terrains have been identified, and its distinctive “rubber ducky” shape is now recognised as two smaller comets that gently melded together as one.

Data from Philae revealed that the comet’s surface is covered with key organic compounds, suggesting that the building blocks of life may be widespread throughout the universe.

But alongside all these great achievements has been the exciting array of science communication that has supported the mission. The goal of ESA was to reach out to as many people as possible and the team looked for new and interesting ways to capture the minds, and also the hearts, of a wide audience.

Once upon a time…

Long, long ago (or in reality back in January 2014), there was a little spacecraft that needed waking up. Launched a decade earlier, the spacecraft had been placed in hibernation for 31 months as it completed the last leg of its journey towards the comet.

The ESA team began a Wake Up, Rosetta! campaign to inform the public about this mission that had begun long ago but had a very exciting year ahead of it.

With wonderful insight, ESA recognised the parallel between Rosetta’s story and the classic fairy tale Sleeping Beauty. This inspired the team to produce a cartoon series, specifically targeted to families and young children that would introduce them to Rosetta.

It was time to wake up Rosetta as well as wake up the public to the fantastic mission that was about to occur. ESA

The end result was a charming cartoon series that has reached a range of audiences and has even won the hearts of the scientists themselves.

Hooking people in

Via the cartoon, complex technical and scientific topics have been tackled in a highly approachable way, one that is widely understood by children as well as appreciated by adults.

The cartoons hooked people in to the process of how a mission unfolds (eg. Preparing for #CometLanding), accurately described the science being undertaken (eg. Living with a comet) and also brilliantly connected with people on an emotional level, adding to the excitement, anticipation and curiosity inspired by the mission (Are we there yet?).

But what about the bad times?

Producing the series was not without its risks. What would happen if the mission failed? This was put to the test when Philae’s landing did not go precisely as planned. Having brought Philae to life and into the hearts of their audience, would he now be left for dead on the comet?

The team realised they could take advantage of the nature of the cartoon and its strong emotional focus. In the #cometlanding episode, the “mishap” was presented in terms of common feelings: a story of the fear, surprise, commitment and even adding a little humour.

Philae packs his bag for the comet landing: camera, compass, pickaxe, snow boots and importantly a sandwich as he’ll need his own source of energy. ESA

In the end, Philae completes the tasks at hand, is proud of his work and slips gently into a long deep sleep. It’s the stuff of fairy tales but made all the better because it was inspired by real events unfolding millions of kilometres away.

One of many approaches

The ESA team should be applauded for their philosophy of making the Rosetta mission personally relevant to people world-wide and being able to building such strong connections.

The cartoon even spun-off its own merchandising material with stickers given out by scientists at public events and a 3D paper model to be made at home. It was featured on T-shirts, sweatshirts and even became a cuddly soft toy.

However, the cartoon was just one aspect of the Rosetta mission’s broad communication campaign. The Rosetta blog provided news and updates as they occurred, there were plenty of interviews with mission experts, and also a Discovery Channel documentary Landing on a Comet.

In a very bold and innovative move, the ESA team released a high-quality short sci-fi film, using all the glamour of Hollywood to present the scientific, technical and philosophical aspects of the mission.

This beautiful work of fiction introduced the mission and a follow up epilogue, released last week, celebrated the mission end.

Well done to ESA and Rosetta for the amazing scientific work that was accomplished and for inspiring all of us along the way.

A detailed overview of ESA’s communication strategy for the Rosetta mission is presented in the March issue of Communicating Astronomy with Public (CAP Journal).