Comet Photos Awaken Wonder At Space Exploration

It took a set of retro-looking images to reawaken the world’s sense of wonder about space exploration.

The black-and-white pictures of a rocky surface sent back from a comet hundreds of millions of miles away are the product of an astonishing feat of science and some sophisticated imaging technology.

But for millions gazing at them with excited awe, the response that the dusty gray rocks and pitch-dark shadows provoke is almost primal.

It’s space as we imagined it in earliest childhood — deep and dark, harsh and alien — and with the Philae lander, humanity has made a fragile foothold on it. That feeling is perfectly captured in one image, an interplanetary selfie, in which one of the lander’s three feet is visible in the corner of the shot.

To be sure, the science is impressive. These crisp images have come from 311 million miles (500 million kilometers) away. The washing machine-sized lander has a close-up camera on its underside and is also mounted with seven high-definition micro-cameras, each weighing just 3.5 ounces (100 grams), designed to endure temperatures as low as minus 238 Fahrenheit (minus 150 Celsius), and arranged to capture 360-degree panoramas of the comet’s surface. (Some of the pictures released by the European Space Agency have been composites of several images.)

But our reaction is about more than scientific appreciation. The stark and elegant pictures cut through the usual space-exploration imagery of rockets and gadgets and flashing lights and take us back to the early black-and-white sci-fi movies many of us remember seeing. A shot taken as the lander descended makes the comet’s surface look like gray plasticine, and evokes George Melies’ 1902 “A Trip to the Moon,” with its famous sequence of a rocket zooming into the eye of the man in the moon.

The flow of images is made more precious by the sense that it may not last. Scientists said Thursday that Philae appeared to have landed in the shadow of a cliff and may not be getting enough sunlight to recharge its solar panels.