Two Rosettas, One Mission

On 12 November 2014 a space module bounced gently in the vastness of space before settling down on a comet millions of kilometres from Earth. Philae had hitched a ride on the European Space Agency’s Rosetta probe to analyse and photograph 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

On 19 July 1799 Pierre-François Bouchard inspected building rubble near the town of Rosetta in Egypt, thousands of kilometres from France, when he discovered a black stone covered in three ancient scripts. As an army engineer Bouchard had hitched a ride on Napoleon’s war machine and unwittingly stumbled upon the key to deciphering a 3 500-year-old language.

Now there may be a slight difference in the technologies involved, but both rocks helped us to piece together a fundamental portion of our past. 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko improved our understanding of planet formation and without the Rosetta Stone, Egyptologists may still have been searching the heavens for the architects of the pyramids.

Mission firsts

Rosetta spacecraft:

  • The first European spacecraft to brush past the primordial objects in the asteroid belt.
  • The first spacecraft to fly next to and orbit a comet headed towards the sun.
  • Rosetta’s Philae lander performed the first controlled touchdown on a comet.
  • The first probe to examine a frozen comet as it is thawed by the sun.

Rosetta Stone:

  • The first trilingual stela discovered by a colonial power in the Middle East.
  • The first time demotic and hieroglyphic text was translated into French.
  • Provided the first direct glimpse of Ancient Egyptian officialdom.
  • The first time Middle Eastern war booty changed hands between the French and English.

Facts written in stone


  • An analysis of the composition of water vapour on 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko disproved the hypothesis that comets of this nature bequeathed mother earth the gift of water ─ the ratio of deuterium to hydrogen in the water from the comet is three times that found in terrestrial water.
  • The absence of a magnetic field around the comet suggests that magnetism did not play a role in the formation of planetary building blocks ─ at least not once they reached a certain size.
  • Solar radiation, not photons from the sun, is responsible for the electrons within a 1 km radius of the comet.

Rosetta Stone:

  • The presence of Greek on the stela confirms the fact that Egypt was under the Ptolemaic yoke in that time.
  • The stone proclaims that “[Ptolemy V] possessed a divine heart which was beneficent towards the gods; and he hath given gold in large quantities, and grain in large quantities to the temples.” From this we can deduce that even the foreign rulers of Egypt, such as Ptolemy, derived their legitimacy from the local gods, more specifically the priests.
  • The demotic script separating the Greek and hieroglyphics contains ideographs that represent ideas or concepts independent of any particular language. “Demotic” denotes a kind of language used by ordinary people.

Even though the tablets that linguists and language lovers consult these days are not made from granite, the information they contain would not have been available without the contributions of amateur archaeologists and linguistic savants such as Piere-François Bouchard and Jean-François Champollion*, or the engineering feats of the Johann-Dietrich Wörners whose futuristic inventions illuminate our past.

*One of the founding figures in the field of Egyptology credited with deciphering hieroglyphics.