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Building Ecsite-ment around a mission

How do you get people from many different countries to feel part of a mission – that it’s their spacecraft undertaking the challenge?

This is one of the questions facing the 22 teams competing for the Google Lunar XPRIZE and aiming to land their robot on the Moon by December 2015.  But it’s also a challenge for those involved in the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission.  

Ecsite, the European Network of Science Centres and Museums, has a new Space Working Group that aims to facilitate interaction between science-centres and the space community.  In the run-up to Ecsite’s Annual Conference in Gothenburg, thirty members of the group attended a 2-day workshop to brainstorm ideas for events, educational projects and exhibition resources that could be used to engage the public with Rosetta.  Rosetta is a comet chaser that in 2014 aims to orbit and dock with the dusty snowball that forms the nucleus of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

Presentations by the European Space Agency gave an overview of the complicated choreography of Rosetta’s journey to Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko, its photo album to date (including this selfie), its current status in sleep mode, details of its wake-up alarm call on 20th January 2014, and its gradual stalking and capture of the comet nucleus in the Autumn of 2014.  One of Sweden’s science public engagement pioneers, Prof Marie Radbo, put this into context by explaining the history of comet observations and the symbolic role given to comets as harbingers of disaster or significant events.  Whether Rosetta is currently enjoying sweet dreams or nightmares is perhaps something we will never know.

Comets are intriguing objects for scientists: they are debris left over from the formation of the Solar System and offer an opportunity to study the material in the gas cloud from which the Sun and all the planets are made.  Many follow a highly elliptical (squished oval) orbit that takes them from the freezing outer reaches of the Solar System to its innermost zone, close enough to the Sun for ice to sublimate. The nucleus of these comets can evolve over each orbit from an inert lump into an unpredictable source of eruptive jets.  The dust and ionised gas released forms the comet’s tails, which can stretch for hundreds of millions of kilometres.  Rosetta will make its rendezvous with Churyumov-Gerasimenko whilst still a long way from the Sun and will travel with the comet as the nucleus becomes more active and the tail grows.  This nucleus is only about 4 kilometres in diameter so its gravitational pull is not sufficient for Rosetta’s “lander” module, Philae, to be held in place on the surface of the nucleus.  Instead of landing, Philae must effectively dock with the nucleus and then shoot a harpoon to tether itself in place.

Google Lunar XPRIZE’s MoonBots consultant, Pearl Hwang, and I attended the workshop to pitch in our experiences working on Google Lunar XPRIZE’s public engagement programmes, including the MoonBots LEGO Mindstorms competition for 9-17 year olds that has been running annually since 2010, a MoonBots-in-a-box kit aimed for use by informal educators and science centres. Finally, our brand new planetarium show, ‘Back to the Moon : For Good’, which is set to launch in the autumn.

At the workshop, after two days of brainstorming, playing with including evaluating LEGO as an educational tool and processing background information on Rosetta and comets, the Ecsite Space Working Group has come up with proposals that will form the basis of a ‘Rosetta outreach kit’.  Ideas include an education programme linked to comets’ significance as a time capsule from formation of the Solar System, role playing games based on mission scenarios and a wake-up cocktail party for the spacecraft.

The pre-conference was a great opportunity for Google Lunar XPRIZE to engage with science centres that share our passion for communicating the latest developments in space exploration.   Thanks to the Ecsite Space Working Group’s coordinators – Marc Moutin, Ana Norinho and Maria Menendez – plus Didier Laval from Ecsite, for their hard work in organising the preconference.  When Rosetta wakes up, there will be a lot of people ready to celebrate and we look forward to the first ‘docking’ with a comet in history.

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