How archaeology is helping the Philae Rosetta mission to a comet 261 million miles away

This article originally appeared on Culture24.

Mission to faraway comet reveals secrets of universe with techniques used on artefacts from 19th century Egypt

A black and white photo of a large knobbly comet in outer spaceA lander heading for outer space will aim to drill down and take photos of the orbiting comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko© ESA / Rosetta / NAVCAM
When a gadget-loaded spacecraft landed on the comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko, 261 million miles away from earth, it began a three-day adventure  that united archaeologists, astronomers and scientists on a mission to reveal fresh secrets about space.

A photo of a tall light brown stone under a blue sky with a historic house behind itThe Philae obelisk, shown with Kingston Lacy in the background© Eugene Birchall,
Using the same Reflectance Transformation Imaging used to cleverly interpret the previously indecipherable text of the Philae Obelisk – a stone returned to the estate of Kingston Lacy by Egyptologist William John Bankes nearly 200 years ago – the Philae Lander scanned the comet.

Should the project prove to be success, planetary physics and classical interpretation techniques will have converged to spectacular effect.

“What makes this ancient Egyptian artefact so special is that, just like the Rosetta Stone, it displays both ancient Egyptian and ancient Greek hieroglyphs,” said Benjamin Altshuler, a Classics Conclave Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents, discussing the obelisk and outlining the mission at the Dorset estate.

“This allowed scholars to compare the two languages and, eventually, crack the code of hieroglyphs.

“The lander will seek to understand the composition of the comet using some of the most advanced technologies – some of the same technologies that are being used up in space, we’re using here on the obelisk to recover some of the lost inscriptions.”

Altshuler is a specialist in the photographic imagine technique, which he has used to illuminate undetectable surfaces at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, as well as the Vatican.

A leader of imaging workshops for schoolchildren in his role for the Boston-based research group, he was joined by Dr Kyriakos Savvopoulos, an Archaeologist-Epigraphist at Oxford University, to admire the intricacies of the obelisk, which was found at a temple by the Nile during the 1820s.

“The reason for having such a bilingual inscription is that both Greeks and Egyptians shared the same country,” explained Dr Kyriakos.

“More specifically, in this case we have a series of letters of correspondence between the Ptolemies – the ruling dynasty – and the priesthood of an Egyptian goddess.

“The best way to understand the importance of reconstructing is to see it as a film in which we miss the beginning or some parts in the middle or the end.

“The more we are able to reconstruct, the better we are able to understand the contents and get the complete picture of it.”

“We see parts that are filled in, where they know what they say, as well as parts that are a little more fragmentary,” observed Altshuler.

“Just as the Rosetta Stone and the Philae Obelisk helped in the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs, we hope their namesakes will lead to a better understanding of the early solar system.”

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A photo of a large dark grey historic stone with lines of inscriptions running across itThe Rosetta Stone is held at the British Museum© Hans Hillewaert
A black and white photo of a large knobbly comet in outer spaceChuryumov-Gerasimenko was discovered in 1969© ESA / Rosetta / NAVCAM
A black and white photo of a large knobbly comet in outer spaceThe comet was discovered from Kazakhstan© ESA / Rosetta / NAVCAM
A black and white photo of a large knobbly comet in outer spaceThe lander will visit the comet on November 12 if the mission goes smoothly© ESA / Rosetta / NAVCAM
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