Rosetta, A Return To Europe's 'Cathedral' Spirit

A 6.6-billion-kilometer space mission flew with the spirit of Paris' Notre Dame cathedral and some of the old continent's other great achievements of vision and steadfastness.

Mission accomplished for the Rosetta team
Mission accomplished for the Rosetta team


PARIS — Mission accomplished for European robot probe Rosetta. After traveling across the universe for more than 10 years and covering 6.6 billion kilometers — passing two asteroids and slingshotting around the Earth three times in the process — Rosetta freed the Philae lander on Wednesday.

The lander hit its target, Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, and instantly started studying the nature of this 4-kilometer-wide, potato-shaped icy comet, a witness to the genesis of our solar system.

This feat will bear significant fruit if Philae remains attached to the comet. But this is already an unprecedented achievement for the European Space Agency, which demonstrates ambition, vision, patience, ingenuity and, not least, independence.

Rosetta's origins date back almost 30 years. It emerged from the Horizon 2000 program, adopted in 1985 by the member states of the European Space Agency (ESA), which is completely distinct from the European Union. After 15 fruitless years, the ESA was granted a considerable long-term budget, giving the agency the means to decide on its own projects, independent from an often unfaithful NASA.

Rosetta sets a resounding example. Approved in 1993, launched in 2004 and finally reaching its destination this year, it symbolizes a form of the "spirit of the cathedral era" that gives some scientific programs their greatness: Like the first architects of Notre Dame de Paris — who of course never saw its completion a century later — some of the minds behind the Rosetta mission were no longer on the project to participate first-hand in this week's landing.

Because science is programmed and financed by political decision-makers these days, it sometimes lacks both a long view and a sense of selflessness, traits that would go a long way to bring back its magic. There's also a form a poetry in going after comet tails, and this dimension is essential to kindle scientific vocations that are currently lacking.

Still, Rosetta's success, which in the end will have cost 1.4 billion euros ($1.7 billion) — the cost of four Airbus 380s, according to ESA — is a symbol of the Old Continent's significance in the global space competition. Europe is still a scientific pioneer, though it must be careful that the Rosetta effort is remembered as more than just a fleeting investment in the space race.

Europe must also be wary of being too dependent on its partners, even though "Big Science" encourages international financing. To be relevant, we can't be on a jump seat. On top of having withdrawn from Rosetta and other programs, the United States might now pull out of the ITER fusion reactor project.

Just as China is quickly gaining pace in numerous scientific projects — particle physics, genetics, space, etc. — Europe must keep this taste for exploration alive and cultivate it. It's what drove a 100-kilogram refrigerator-sized space probe to the surface of an ice cube lost in the cosmos.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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