The twin spacecraft of the STEREO mission (Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory) were launched on Wednesday, 26th October, 2006 at 00:52 Coordinated Universal Time. As they orbited the moon very slightly apart, its gravity flung them in opposite directions, the ‘Ahead’ (A) satellite directly into a heliocentric path, the ‘Behind’ (B) satellite once more around the earth before it followed. Now both circle the sun, sending back data on storms and flares that cannot be seen from earth itself. Like the eyes of an invisible face they see it in 3D. Because A’s orbit is slightly inside the earth’s and B’s slightly outside, they drew further and further apart from each other until on 6 February 2011 they were at 180 degrees, gazing on the sun from opposite sides. Then they began to move closer again. They will pass earth some time in 2023, but they will never come back down.
The twin spacecraft are flung, tiny, brave, out of the atmosphere. Earth, falling away, seems now a bright, jewelled thing, but they look forward, swing round the moon like trapeze artists and are launched into the great wheel of space. Naked to the solar wind, they monitor and measure the sun’s fluctuations; one ahead and one behind, they see, as has never been seen before, the sun’s whole surface. They see entire; they speak a pure language of radio frequencies. They are craft and knowledge and curiosity, humankind’s best parts, spinning in the sky. In their precisely calibrated asymmetry, they move apart and now closer together, but they will never tire. They will keep their ceaseless watch.
On thee, O Sun, adored indifferent Star,
These thy priestesses gaze, and see thy flares
And flaws, and know thee no Apollo, Ra
Nor Baal, and neither Dwarf nor Giant; our prayers
Ascend not, but encircle, reach the earth
As electronic oracles of thy grace;
We watch unceasing from our orbit’s girth
The frowns and smiles of thy plasmatic face.
And still in parted partnership we tread
Our dance, our circuit vast on following feet;
I ever hindermost and she ahead,
And hope that one day we again may meet;
Consoled that it is granted us to hear
The strange bright music of this heavenly sphere.
As children we were heedlessly together
played, fought, found out the world
were each other’s measure and mirror.
And then we parted, went our ways
our similar ways, as it turned out
into the circuits of a woman’s life
the orbit of our jobs, our children
our men, our clawed-back creativity
our watch upon a changing order
and I the elder went ahead
and you behind, to different lands,
but dancing the same dance, apart
and I see the beauty of your dance
the wisdom you have learned, your wit
and wish our circles could rejoin
at last, my sister, o my sister.
The twin spacecraft of the STEREO mission continue to orbit the sun, measuring, observing, transmitting. They move apart, closer again, and pass each other. They see the storms and coronal ejections, they see the growing bloat of age; they witness on behalf of humans long since scorched from earth. Four billion years pass. The old sun swells into a red giant, swallowing its inner planets. The spacecraft too are lost, burnt up, ghosts of ash, speaking to ghosts, memories rushing towards each other’s arms that miss their grasp and ever spin away.
No, gather up, rewind. Reassemble this dust. Wake up and look again with clear eyes on the wondrous sun. Rejoin, remember. We’re not dead yet
The twin spacecraft of the STEREO mission (Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory) were designed to study solar events, especially coronal mass ejections, which can cause power blackouts, scramble satellite electronics and disrupt airlines. One just inside and one just outside earth’s orbit, they transmit stereoscopic images of the great star. On our behalf they watch its storms and eruptions, but it is also their source of power. And so it is for us the source and threat to life, according as we channel or concentrate its light and heat. Under the sun we make gardens and guns, plastics, pollution, art, mistakes, and love. On 1st October 2014 NASA scientists lost contact with the B spacecraft; efforts to re-establish the signal are ongoing. Perhaps they will succeed.
This piece of writing is inspired by the ‘Duet’ soundtrack by Tim Shiel (2013).
For more information on the STEREO mission see http://stereo.gsfc.nasa.gov/