Landing on a Comet

As readers probably know, ESA has sent a spacecraft to a comet from the Kuiper Belt, to take a closer look and find out what a comet is actually like. According to the latest updates, it seems possible that the comet lander has come to rest below a cliff in the shade. If so, it would be a pity, because its solar panels would only get 90 minutes of sunlight per day instead of 6 hours as planned. It recently sent back a photograph of its feet, in other words it is busy taking selfies at the moment:


1.philae-feetPhilae sent a photo of part of itself. It doesn’t seem to know where exactly it is.

(Photo credit: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA)

Still, even though the landing seems to have been a bit botched – the anchoring harpoons failed to fire, and the lander bounced around before coming to a standstill – this landing is quite a stunning event.

To summarize: after about a decade of flight time, the Rosetta spacecraft has reached a comet by the name 67P – Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which hurtles through space at about 40,000 miles per hour, is rotating quite fast and is currently about 310 million miles (half a billion kilometers) away from us. If things were the other way around and the comet were to land on us, it would look like this:



If 67P were to make landfall in Paris, people would undoubtedly take notice.

(Image credit: ESA/Rosetta/Navcam; Map data ©2014 Google, Bluesky)


Aside from the fact that the lander Philae actually did manage to perform a landing on the comet, albeit a bumpy one, it is quite astonishing that the Rosetta craft is orbiting the comet now. In other words, it has become a satellite of 67P.



Here is a short video showing a series of photographs taken by both the orbiter and the landing craft:


A series of pictures taken from both the orbiter and the lander


Next is a picture of the comet’s surface, taken from a distance of about 3 kilometers by Philae as it was approaching the landing site:


3-3km above surfaceThree kilometers away from 67P

(Photo credit: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/ROLIS/DLR)


Here you can see where it should have landed and where it is suspected to actually be at the moment:


4-comet-philae-where-isThe cross-hairs mark the planned landing site – the red rectangle shows where Philae is suspected to be hanging out right now. Unfortunately, that’s in the shadow of a cliff.

(Photo credit:ESA)


A first panorama picture from the surface was also tweeted by Philae recently:


5-First_comet_panora_3105727cPhilae is looking around.

(Photo credit: ESA)


Finally, here is an artist’s impression of the orbiter and the lander:


6-rosetta-filae-come_3101448kRosetta & Philae, artist’s impression

(Image credit:ESA)


Regardless of the problems with the anchoring harpoons and the possibility that Philae may not be able to perform everything it was sent to do because it might face a battery recharging problem, this is truly a milestone in space exploration. It was not too long ago when a feat like this would have been science fiction.


Space Exploration in an Unhampered Market Economy

We wanted to add a brief comment regarding the question of whether such activities would take place if they were not funded by taxes. In other words, if we were living in a completely unhampered market economy, either an anarcho-capitalist society or one in which there exists only the kind of nightwatchman State once envisaged by the founders of the US. Would there be funding available for landings on comets or other types of expensive fundamental research, such as particle accelerators like CERN?

Unfortunately we cannot go back in time and alter the decisions that have set us on the course to the current mixed-economy-on-its-way-to-full-scale-socialism that we actually have to live in. So we have nothing to compare the situation to. However, even in today’s severely hampered market economy, private companies have in the meantime successfully invaded the turf of organizations like NASA and ESA. These companies are of course driven by the profit motive. While this means that they can be relied upon to allocate scarce resources as efficiently as possible, landing on a comet 310 million miles distant is probably not very high up on their to-do list, as it is unlikely to yield a profit for a very long time, if ever (note though that the commercial exploitation of asteroids is a topic people are thinking about).

However, historical experience shows that whenever the market economy was relatively unhampered compared to today’s (no central bank, sound money, government amounting only to about 3 to 4% of the total economy), real economic growth was far greater than it has been in modern times. Not only that, it was also more equitable, as the reverse redistribution of wealth enabled by the inflationary fiat money system was extremely limited. The effect was not completely absent, since fractional reserve banking still led to the expansion of fiduciary media and the associated boom-bust sequences, but it was a far cry from what we observe nowadays.

If this relatively free system had remained in place, we would probably be decades ahead by now in terms of economic and technological progress compared to where we actually are. Capital accumulation would have been an order of magnitude greater, due to the compounding of higher growth rates. Among other things, this would mean that the cost of ventures such as comet landings relative to total wealth would not be as daunting as it is today.

How was pure science funded in the times before the State became the Leviathan it is today? As Hans-Hermann Hoppe has pointed out, “the natural elites” would function as patrons of scientists and intellectuals, either out of genuine personal interest in science or simply due to a desire to leave a mark by contributing to humanity’s advancement. After all, if you are very rich, there are only so many things you can do with your wealth. Even today, many wealthy people are funding all sorts of philanthropic ventures.

Human action is complex, and everyone pursues goals that are “non-economic” in nature to a greater or lesser extent, i.e., goals that are not motivated by monetary gain. Moreover, funding of fundamental or “pure” research could also yield an indirect commercial benefit for its patrons – for instance, companies could hope to gain goodwill from being associated with it. A number of companies have in fact funded fundamental research internally in the past – see e.g. the Bell Labs as a pertinent example.

In short, we have little doubt that fundamental scientific research would be appropriately funded in a truly free society. It is actually a good bet that greater progress would by now have been achieved in this area as well. Not only would people be much wealthier on average in a truly free society, but in the absence of a Leviathan-sized government, they would have a far greater incentive to contribute to charity, science, the arts, etc. Today it is after all automatically assumed that most of these things will be tax-funded, so why bother?



Regardless of how we got to this point, the landing on 67P it testimony to the boundlessness of human ingenuity.



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2 Responses to “This Is Major Philae to Ground Control …”

  • It is really difficult to say what would have happened without the mercantilist system. In some ways, one has to recognize that banking has made capital fluid and movable, which might not have occurred without it. We could have done without the protections given by governments to bankers and ended up with a more sound and equitable system. The system we have now is bound to rob most of us or our children blind, as they hock our future. One cannot have their cake and eat it too forever.

    I saw a comment here or somewhere else, giving credit to the military for developing so much technology. It was generally developed through private companies working on military contracts, so the questions that will never be answered are if the technology would have been developed and when, had the military not been involved. This might be offset with the idea of, had the resources remained private, what would have occurred? We might have actually been ahead of schedule had government intervention not created the Great Depression and the 2 World Wars. Working for zero, which is what building weapons to explode on a battlefield actually entails can’t be worth much in the end for any economy.

    • zerobs:

      Talking about military technological development is meaningless without also talking about wasteful R&D in the military. The funding for the military advancements AND the waste are at the point of a gun – wasteful R&D in the private sector is still subject to economic law. In other words, government-funded tech is always more wasteful even though advancements are made.

      But most people refuse to see malinvestment when the money is going into their pockets. R&D that is too wasteful in the private sector IS malinvestment but government is incapable of that analysis. It’s even worse in the military as there is no cash flow – in fact the quasi-privatization of the military is actually an accelerator of malinvestment because the cash flow is toward the contractors and their main concern is getting the contract, not the sensibility of the work. I’ve made this argument many time in the private sector – we never see contractors/free lancers turn down stupid projects so contracting out R&D is a recipe for waste and, in the private sector, job cuts.

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