If, as L.P. Hartley once wrote, “the past is a foreign country,” then the future is a distant world.
Earlier this month the space probe Philae, hurtling across the universe on the comet known as 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, began sending information back to Earth. Until Philae’s successful landing, no probe had ever got close enough to a comet to unlock its icy secrets. Yet comets are like ancient memory banks, with vital clues to the formation of the solar system embedded in their frozen dust particles.
The Philae probe is named after the 2,200-year-old Egyptian obelisk that, along with the Rosetta Stone, provided the linguistic keys to the lost languages of the ancient world. The new Philae has brought us to the edge of another great frontier of knowledge: the lost moments of the origins of life on Earth.