A Microcosm on a Sheet of Paper
New Geographies 8, Island
Rania Ghosn and El Hadi Jazairy, 2016
In 1682 an icy celestial body crossed the sky following the same path as others visible in 1531 and 1607. Using the law of universal gravitation developed by his friend Sir Isaac Newton, Edmond Halley showed that all three appearances were actually of the same comet, traveling around the Sun in a long orbit and returning every 76 years. He predicted that the comet would reappear in 1758. The periodic comet did indeed return, in 1759"a little late, having been slowed down by Jupiter’s strong gravitational pull. It also returned in 1835, 1910, and 1986.
The reactions provoked by the appearance of Comet Halley shifted over the centuries. Until the late 17th century, it was widely believed that the “long-haired star” was a portent of impending disaster (a word whose etymology goes back to astèr, or star). The discovery of the regular motion of the comet vacated its ominous meaning. More recent observations further normalized the comet as just another member of the solar system, like the Moon and Mars, ripe for exploration. In the comet’s last sojourn through the inner
solar system, five space probes flew through its tail, closely observing its jets of evaporating material and snapping thousands of photographs as they swept by, in anticipation of a future of near-Earth object mining.
In 2062 the Halley Armada project will initiate its mission to land a spacecraft on the comet and experiment in a closed ecological system with in-situ resource utilization. This comet mining mission benefits from the regulatory framework established by the Outer Space Treaty and the Moon Agreement. These United Nations-sponsored agreements paradoxically treat outer space as the common heritage of mankind"a res communes territory in which space mining and the extraction of natural outer-space resources are allowed and where private property and exclusive ownership rights over those resources, when removed from their natural place, are granted. Scientists are thrilled about this cosmological assignment. To astronomers a comet is a flying natural history museum filled with precious artifacts. Like a cosmic refrigerator, it is stocked with the leftovers of creation "the odd bits and pieces of simple, unused matter dating from the moment when the Sun and its attendant planets assumed their present form. By plowing into Halley’s cold heart and sifting through its dust and gases, the Halley Armada will explore conditions that have persisted for over five billion years.
The armada will launch when Comet Halley approaches the earth in 2062. Its mission patch reads, “Love Your Monsters” and “Care for Your Technologies as You Do Your Children.” The space probe will be composed of 30 modules, each enveloped in a soft membrane and host to a living, hairy palpal bulb. Landing in the comet’s Central Depression, the modules will implant their feeding stem to suck liquid from the comet’s nucleus, which is mostly ice from water. In this primal moment of insemination, the parasites fleet leeches off the body of their host.
The formal configuration of the modules will respond to Halley’s trajectory around the Sun and to the set of associated physical processes and chemical compounds across its expansive temperature range. The armada will reconfigure in relation to the comet’s changing temperature milieu, between the perihelion and aphelion, between the closest and most distant points in the comet’s orbit around the Sun. As this dirty snowball swoops toward the Sun, ice and frozen gases are vaporized on the comet’s sunward surface. The energy liberated in this sublimation will inflate the membranes of each module, their surfaces harnessing light and heat in a process of artificial photosynthesis. The envelopes will collapse as the comet moves away from the Sun. The dormant cells will incubate, weave their shell, and assemble into one large, blue egg. Irritated by trillions of objects and icy debris at the fringes of the solar system, the egg will hatch a swarm of spider monsters beyond the Oort cloud. This cycle will repeat every 76 years, with interruptions and reformulations, until the comet eventually disintegrates into meteor clouds.