Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Communicating Rosetta

It may seem odd to 'review' an issue of a magazine, but the March 2016 "Rosetta special" of Communicating Astronomy with the Public forms almost a book with its 48 pages and interconnected points of view of most of the authors. With the sole exception of the very last article, all contributors were either insiders of the outreach machinery of the Rosetta mission or journalists 'embedded' in some way: this provides a unique behind-the-scenes view of a major science communications and public relations effort, and the broad range of ideas brought to fruition during Rosetta's key years from its 'waking up' in January 2014 has never before been presented in such a comprehensive fashion. The Rosetta outreach community really tried everything they or their contractors could think of to get the public at large excited about this risky flagship science mission which space and science nerds had been salivating about anyway, eager for nuts and bolts information and actual results, of course.

The most exotic venture discussed has also led to the most entertaining article of the Rosetta special in which the ESA-led making of the science fiction short "Ambition" is described as a super-secret operation eventually taking almost everyone by surprise. Here, for once, the actual struggle to succeed is coming to life while many of the other contributions to the magazine issue come over rather self-congratulatory, largely ignoring frustrations along the way and controversies erupting, some of which are even public knowledge. Or they are missing irony, e.g. when the introductory article talks about bringing a 'real-time' experience of the mission to the world (when the opposite was often the case, in stark contrast to the raw drama of Giotto's two comet encounters; best practice and/or failures from previous missions are missing in general). The same can be said when the 'Ambition' piece makes no mention of the fact that the key message of the movie was that comets brought water to the Earth when soon Rosetta's first major scientific discovery would be that at least this comet clearly didn't.

What the contributors - with exception of the one truly independent voice at the end - also gloss over is the major controversy over who's got to see which images from Rosetta's cameras when (that even left the ESA DG frustrated) and how it was semi-resolved with a moderately free sharing of NAVCAM imagery. Or how the unique chance was missed to illustrate the Philae (touch-and-go) landing at Agilkia on that very day with the complete ROLIS descent sequence which was available within hours but officially published only ten months(!) later. Absent is also Philae's biggest unscripted PR success when a MUPUS scientist suddenly revealed all the drama on Twitter - for once the space nerd community was served, too. But most sorely missing in the 48 pages are actual metrics beyond social media likes and anecdotes of how the unprecedented broad Rosetta communications effort really shaped the public's view of ESA: how many more in Europe and outside do now know about that space agency's very existence and/or appreciate its science activities? Were such numbers never researched (e.g. by not too complicated phone polling) or ...?

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