Another last cry from the eternal infinite

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 02 July, 2009, 12:00am

Outer space inspires and terrifies. Children are always fascinated by it. And science fiction often projects it as a terrifying unknown. As the first Alien movie, a cult classic, used to advertise: 'In space, no one can hear you scream.' But for astronomers and science buffs, space is, at least this week, a source of vague sadness.

One of the great feats in modern spacefaring came to an end on Tuesday when Ulysses, a space probe jointly developed and operated by the European Space Agency (ESA) and Nasa, was decommissioned after 18 years in space. It lasted more than four times its expected lifespan. Scientists wrote its obituary last year, but news of its demise proved premature. It just kept beaming back data. It had to be shut down this week when its power supplies ran out. Like its namesake, it had more resources than its makers realised.

In the early phase of its career, the satellite surveyed the atmosphere of Jupiter. But its real mission was to study the regions of space above the poles of the sun. No other probe has done so in such close proximity. It has changed the way scientists understand space weather, including the discovery of how charged solar particles could harm astronauts and satellites. There is a Hollywood sci-fi script in that discovery alone.

There is always something vaguely tragic about space probes ending their missions, whether successful or not. They are either destroyed, as when the Russian space station Mir self-destructed when it re-entered the earth's atmosphere in 2001, and when British-made Beagle 2 was dropped on to Mars on December 25, 2003, and was lost forever. Often, they go dead and drift into space, for eternity. That will be the fate of Ulysses, and many other space probes humanity has shot into the firmaments over the decades. Somehow that image conveys silence, eternity - and death.

I had never taken much interest in space exploration until I found that my dentist, Ng Tze-chuen, had developed experimental tools for Mir cosmonauts in the early 1990s - as a costly hobby. He and his colleagues at the Polytechnic University built more soil-sampling tools for Beagle 2. I had never seen disappointment in a man's face as I did when I was with Dr Ng the day the ESA announced that Beagle 2 - named after the ship that took young Charles Darwin on an epoch-making sea voyage - was lost forever.

Sigmund Freud describes our primal feeling of vastness as 'oceanic'. This may be literally true. Peoples who stared out at vast unknown oceans in ages past must have felt vaguely the same way we do now when we look into space. The Phoenicians built the most advanced fleets in the ancient world, discovered and first navigated the Atlantic Ocean, and introduced phonetic writing into Greece. Arab seafarers explored the Indian Ocean, a feat repeated and exceeded by Zheng He, the eunuch admiral of the Ming dynasty, who went as far as today's Somalia. The sea explorers and spice traders of Spain and Portugal inaugurated the era of western dominance, making the west the most dynamic civilisation in the past 500 years.

Seafaring, like spacefaring today, had to be sanctioned and supported by the state, which invested in it as a sign of its prestige. Just as the greatest seafaring nations harnessed and developed the most advanced science and technology of their times, so it has been with spacefaring. That is why emerging powers like India and China are reigniting the space race. But what power space exploration projects, and what knowledge it gains, are insignificant in the vastness of the universe, and that is the meaning of the image of a dying Ulysses, lost in infinite space. Long before the Alien tagline, Pascal wrote: 'The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.'

The last message that the French navy sent out in Morse code, in 1997, before ending the code's use forever would make a fitting farewell from Ulysses: 'Calling all. This is our last cry before our eternal silence.'

Alex Lo is a senior writer at the Post