Ten years ago a rocket launched from Kourou, French Guiana, on a mission that cost around £1 billion and seemed fraught with difficulties. This week, after a decade in orbit, the spacecraft Rosetta finally reached its destination – a comet which is currently hurtling through space at 34,000mph.
The Rosetta Space Mission, which was first considered in the 1970s and approved in 1993, is finally ready to deliver data from Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko – named after two Soviet scientists – after landing craft Philae touched down on the surface. The hope is that data from the rock will give insights into the origins of the solar system.
It is an important moment in space exploration because Philae is the first landing craft to touchdown on one of the solar system’s icy rocks. However, the landing did not entirely go to plan after the robot probe failed to fasten itself to the surface causing tension amongst European Space Agency (ESA) scientists.
Once the landing craft became stable, pictures of the comet were sent back to earth and have been viewed millions of times on Flickr, retweeted thousands of times on Twitter and widely shared on Facebook. This mission has not only been a triumph in space exploration but also a success for social media.
Space enthusiasts closely followed Philae’s developments on Twitter, where #CometLanding (and now #Philae and #Rosetta) are trending. Photos were posted to Instagram, a Twitter profile for Philae was published, an official blog covered every step of the landing and Facebook feeds were filled with up-to-date news about the mission. Currently, a touchdown tweet from Philae has received over 35,000 retweets. While this type of social activity around a significant event may seem the norm these days, this was not the case a decade ago, and the world which Rosetta left in 2004 has changed at a rapid speed.
Exactly one month before the launch, Harvard University student Mark Zuckerberg founded a company that would go on to attract 1.35 billion monthly active users – and counting. The rising social networking site on the scene back in 2004 was Myspace, which only had around 1 million registered users when Rosetta left our planet. Two years on from that day in Kourou, four men in San Francisco founded Twitter. The creation of WhatsApp was still another five years away, Instagram six years and Google+ seven years.
In the lifespan of the Rosetta Space Mission, social media has escalated from a tool used by a select few to a global necessity for many of its millions of followers. The ESA has achieved a monumental feat in space by getting Philae to land on an object travelling at thousands of miles per hour and it is worth applauding that remarkable accomplishment. However, it is also worth taking stock of the rapid rise of social media here on earth in the ten years Rosetta has been chasing that comet.
Another 10 years of space exploration will surely see us take another step towards travelling to the red planet Mars. However, the path social media sites take in the next decade may be even harder to foresee.
Image credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO