To Perihelion and beyond! A Celebration of Rosetta & Philae’s Comet Adventure (National Space Centre, Leicester, 1 Sept 2015)

-Reviewed by Sally Jack

presented by the Leicester Astronomical Society
with poetry by Siobhan Logan

This has to rank as one of the more unusual spoken word events in the known universe.

Leicester’s National Space Centre is approached along the wonderfully named Exploration Drive, the centre’s opaque, pupae-like structure looming over the car park like some sort of giant Dr Who set.

Via the Leicester Astronomical Society, writer, performance poet and storyteller Siobhan Logan organised an evening combining readings from her scroll Philae’s Descent into Duat, Egyptian Book of Hours with a presentation by University of Leicester’s Professor John Bridges on the European Space Agency (ESA) mission to land the Rosetta probe on comet 67P (aka the more memorable ‘Singing Hairy Star’).

The opening act was pretty special.


A comet is born

Donning protective gauntlets, Space Centre scientist Josh Baker made a ‘real’ comet, a key ingredient of which was a nice glass of Australian Chiraz (representing organic matter). From dust, water, wine and gas a jaggy, fizzing, vapour-trailing comet was born; never has my attention been more grabbed at the start of a reading.

Siobhan summarised the evening as a mash up of ancient myth and modern space adventure. Taking inspiration from the ESA’s use of Egyptian mythology (by naming the probe ‘Rosetta’),  Logan likens the story of the Rosetta mission to the daily journey of sun-god Ra and his solar boat.

There was a heck of a lot of info to take in, my knowledge of space missions and Egyptian mythology being not quite ‘up there’, however, to try to put everything into context: the Egyptian Rosetta Stone depicts the same text in three languages and when ‘read’ with the Philae obelisk, Egyptologists decoded hieroglyphics and thus, their mythology.

Similarly, the ESA’s mission was to decipher the secrets of life on Earth by ‘studying in situ the make up and activity of a comet as it orbits towards the sun’. Rosetta was the mother-ship and Philae the probe which landed on comet 67P in November 2014.

Philae’s Descent into Duat is beautifully presented as an illustrated scroll. Siobhan read her sixteen verses which interweave the life of a comet, the twelve year mission of its alien visitors, Rosetta and Philae, together with Ra’s progress across the sky by day and his twelve hours of night in the underworld. The coming together of our ancient and modern worlds seemed almost logical.

From Verse 4, Slumber:

For now Rosetta is dead
to the murmured incantations 
of Mission Control

Verse 6, Eye of Osiris:

stitching in pixels to compose
a two-headed beast, a dog-bone

After a short break, both Siobhan and Prof Bridges built the drama of the final stages of the mission with the attempt to land Philae on 67P.

Verse 13, Dragon-Breath

his pits are spewing dust and gas:
like twelve cobras of Duat
they torch the darkened halls

Verse 15, Reboot:

a snakeskin song of telemetry
a cometary Book of Hours

Much like the mixing of odd ingredients with Josh’s ‘home-brew’ comet, this bizarre evening fused the precision of science and space exploration with the fantastical stories of Ancient Egypt to create a coherent whole. This set my mind off in many directions, ignited by terms like ‘sniffing the volatiles’, ‘prebiotic building blocks of life’, ‘interstellar grains’. It all felt rather exhilarating.

This event derives its power from the combination of poet’s words, multi-media imagery and contextual information from the space scientist. Reading the verses from the page later I felt there was scope for more; Siobhan often writes with space as her theme and this particular area is fertile for creative exploration. It will be interesting to see if Siobhan will continue to develop and extend this further – perhaps a pamphlet.

When contemplating the vastness of the solar system, thoughts soon turn to Earth, human beings and our insignificance in the wider scheme of things, but also our ability to create, work together and strive for knowledge. Inspiring stuff.

If you are interested in finding out more about this mission some links follow which may be of interest:

Images on the ESA website (with the ultimate in selfies: space probe plus comet)

University of Leicester press release

Featured image of Rosetta and comet by Siobhan Logan