1402: Harpoons

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To motivate it to fire its harpoons hard enough, Rosetta's Philae lander has been programmed to believe it is trying to kill the comet.
Title text: To motivate it to fire its harpoons hard enough, Rosetta's Philae lander has been programmed to believe it is trying to kill the comet.


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This comic is a graph of the number of harpoons in space versus time. One would not expect that harpoons, which are associated with old technology, would be used in space, which is associated with high technology. Any occurrences are unexpected, and therefore interesting or funny.

The first peak states that a harpoon was in space during the Apollo 12 mission and is associated with an incident related to rum. This implies that Harpoon brand of Jamaican rum made it aboard the Apollo 12 rocket. This is a joke, Apollo 12 carried neither harpoons nor rum.

The latter peak on this graph refers to the Rosetta unmanned spacecraft. As part of its mission, it's carrying a lander (called Philae), which has two tethers to anchor itself to the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. Rosetta was launched in March 2004 (as shown in the graph) and was scheduled to encounter the comet in August 2014, making this a timely comic. As of September 6th, Rosetta is maneuvering to enter orbit on September 10th. The Philae lander is scheduled to harpoon onto the comet in November 2014. The Rosetta spacecraft also carries a disk micro-etched with 13,000 pages of text in 1200 languages donated by the Long Now foundation, mentioned in previous comics.

This continues a recurring theme (as seen in comics 111 and 231), with two unrelated but interesting objects juxtaposed graphically with humorous results.

The title text compares the Philae lander's method of deploying its tethers to whaling, in which sailors would throw harpoons at a whale with the intent of killing the whale. It was important to throw hard so the harpoon would stick in the whale so it could not get away and would tow the whaling boat until it got tired and could be killed. Thus the title text implies that the spacecraft is sentient and needs a motivation to fire the harpoons hard enough to stay anchored to the comet; to this end it has been programmed to believe that its mission is to kill the comet.


Number of harpoons in space
by year
[A chart with a red graph is drawn below]
[The y-axis]
0 1 2 3
[The x-axis]
1950 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2010 2020
[The graph is at zero until a sharp peak to 1 in 1970. The peak is labeled]
Apollo 12 rum incident
[The graph then stays at 0 until 2004. Then it rises to 2 and stays there until today, continuing as a dotted line after 2014. The rise is labeled]
Rosetta comet mission launched carrying lander with harpoon tethers

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I took the sentient space craft joke to be a reference to the movie "Dark Star". (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

Harpoon is a brand of rum. Did a bottle make it into space? 12:55, 1 August 2014 (UTC)

I tried to find who makes it but wasn't able to find a definitive source. I added http://www.harpoon-rum.eu/ for now but it would be nice to have the link to the canonical source. Any pointers? --Waldir (talk) 17:24, 1 August 2014 (UTC)
It's only headcannon. (ref to xkcd #1401)  A headcannon which fires a harpoon. 17:52, 1 August 2014 (UTC)

Did this comic upload quite late in the day for anyone else? Is anyone else experiencing or did anyone else experience that "Latest Comic" is still going to 1401 as ix XKCD.com and XKCD.com/# (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

"This is obviously a joke, as sentient spacecraft cannot be created with current technology." Yeah, will need a citation on that... 13:23, 1 August 2014 (UTC)

Definitely a joke. Appolo 12’s call sign was Yankee Clipper, and a clipper ship would not carry any harpoons. 14:04, 1 August 2014 (UTC)

I'd believe someone might have smuggled some Harpoon (or even any brand of) rum up there, then brought it back down with them, ingested or otherwise (thus the drop right after the mission). Alternately, "incident" could be something more along the lines of losing an empty bottle of rum during a spacewalk (farfetched as it may be) and it reentering the atmosphere(?) - probably no more than stories, though - nothing official probably exists about anything like that going up or down in any manner. -- Brettpeirce (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

Moby Dick is, let's say, extremely far-fetched. It was not the ship that was hunting the whale and harpooning it by itself. -- 17:27, 1 August 2014 (UTC)

Could the Apollo 12 bump possibly be a reference to Futurama? "We're whalers on the moon, we carry a harpoon" 15:51, 1 August 2014 (UTC)

Maybe it is a reference to a print ad by Bacardi-Martini, mentioned briefly in Buzz Aldrins book Magnificent Desolation. 22:10, 1 August 2014 (UTC)

While it is more likely that a harpoon (or bottle of harpoon rum) went to space and returned with the Apollo 11 mission, the caption makes it sound like the harpoon was only in space for the duration of the incident. Might it have been created and destroyed there? 22:54, 1 August 2014 (UTC)

The graph explicitly asserts the Apollo 12 incident caused a "harpoon" to be in space, but only for a short time. Therefore, the harpoon was destroyed in space or returned to earth. Perhaps harpoon rum ascended with the astronauts; then was consumed on the moon, burned up in earth's atmosphere, or returned with the astronauts. (DP) D peterson (talk) 14:49, 2 August 2014 (UTC)

Whale killing

Saying "sailors would throw harpoons at a whale until it died" betrays a limited understanding of the process. Harpoons were barbed, and were meant to stick in the whale while it sounded (went deep.) A length of (about half-inch) rope kept the harpoon connected to the whaleboat. After the whale was exhausted (from towing the whaleboat while trying to shake off the harpoon? idk) the whaleboat could approach it, and the boatswain (not the harpooner) would kill it with an unbarbed lance. Holling Clancy Holling's Seabird shows how it was done, with pictures and all. 19:00, 1 August 2014 (UTC)

A picture of the whale ... http://www.esa.int/spaceinimages/Images/2014/08/Comet_on_4_August_2014_-_NavCam Spongebog (talk) 21:47, 5 August 2014 (UTC)

Svend Foyn

Norwegian whaler Svend Foyn revolutionarized whaling by inventing explosive harpoon to hunt whales. He made whaling much easier and quicker. This method saved Norway from the famine thread in 19th century. -- Multimotyl (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

[Citation needed] joke.

I thought the sentence "of course, Rosetta is not sapient[Citation needed]", was sort of funny. It implied "of course, Rosetta is not sapient[or is it?]", adding a bit of humour and mystery to the explanation. (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

i think it should be added back in, until somebody can cite a source showing that it is not sentient. Spongebog (talk) 02:24, 3 August 2014 (UTC)
Suggestions for apollo 12 rum incident explanations

The Apollo Rum Incident is probably related to Bacardi's advertising campaign which altered the image of Buzz Aldrin (apparently from Apollo 11, not 12) to show him in shorts with a rum. I mean, unless it wasn't altered ... Arothfusz (talk) 16:44, 2 August 2014 (UTC) A. Rothfusz

Apollo 12 Preliminary Science Report NASA SP-235

"The Apollo 12 core-tube bit is far from optimal in design, but results in a smaller range of uncertainty. On the other hand, hammering a core into the soil is known to cause more disturbance to the sample than if the core is PUSHED into the soil at a HIGH, CONSTANT SPEED." ... (/rum horizontal) 16:47, 3 August 2014 (UTC)

Some Coincidences

1. A daily rum ration was provided in British navy until 1970: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rum_ration

2. Harpoon cocktail was updated in 1970 to include option of gin as base: http://www.diffordsguide.com/cocktails/recipe/2178/harpoon-cocktail

3. Apollo 12 actually flew in November 1969: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollo_12

4. HMS Apollo Rum incident: http://idle-idle.blogspot.com/2008/02/hms-apollo-incident_15.html

5. There is a variety of hops called Apollo: http://beerlegends.com/apollo-hops

6. Harpoon is slang for harmonica, but there's no evidence a harmonica was on board.

7. The memorial 'Fallen Astronaut' was placed on the moon on August 1,1971 by Apollo 15 (the backup crew for Apollo 12): https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fallen_Astronaut

8. August 1, 1971 has been called the "greatest day of scientific exploration that we've ever seen in the space programme - possibly of all time.": http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/august/1/newsid_4101000/4101579.stm

9. To harpoon, is to strike with a pointed instrument. Apollo 12 was struck by lightning (twice) upon takeoff. John Aaron's command "SCE to Aux" restored flight telemetry causing him to be labelled a "steely-eyed missile man": http://www.universetoday.com/98484/this-day-in-space-history-apollo-12-and-sce-to-aux/

10. Such an unusual event is called a "rum go": https://en.m.wiktionary.org/wiki/rum_go

11. The Apollo 12 landing area was, ironically, 'Ocean of Storms'. It landed 600 feet from Surveyor 3, making this the "only human artifact ever encountered in lunar exploration". Conrad intended on taking a self-portrait with Bean at Surveyor 3, but couldn't find the self-timer he had smuggled on board. When he later found it, he threw it as hard as he could out onto the moon (motivated like a harpooner).

12. All Apollo 12 astronauts were from US Navy.

13. Episode 2 of 'Futurama' centers on a visit to an Apollo landing site & includes a song about whalers on the moon, carrying harpoons: http://futurama.wikia.com/wiki/Whalers_on_the_Moon Fry uses a harpoon to derail a 'moon buggy' from an amusement ride so he can use it to visit the landing site. Fry says "yee-haw!" driving the buggy over a crater.

14. The 'Apollo 13' cocktail is based on rum: http://www.drinksmixer.com/drink8506.html

Nathan Hillery (talk) 21:35, 3 August 2014 (UTC)

Harpoon Rum did go up with Apollo 12. Some miniatures were taken for Thanksgiving, but Charles Conrad order his crew-mates not to drink them. 10:36, 4 August 2014 (UTC)

Is there any online references for this claim? Spongebog (talk) 20:22, 4 August 2014 (UTC)
I could find no references for that particular claim, but there is a similar story regarding holiday miniatures of brandy that were packed for Apollo 8, all of which came back to earth since Borman ordered his crew not to drink them. 18:30, 6 August 2014 (UTC)

Apollo 12's landing site was also known as Oceanus Procellarum. http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/LRO/multimedia/lroimages/lroc_20091104_apollo12.html#.U9-P-xD5eM0 (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

All I can think of now is "We're whalers on the moon, we carry a harpoon". That'll be in my head for the rest of the day 10:49, 5 August 2014 (UTC)

Sapient vs Sentient

Sapient : To posses wisdom (http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/sapient)

Sentient : To be self-aware (http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/sentient)

Wisdom is not required to be "Motivated" (which is what the space craft is claimed to be) however it does need to be self aware -- and therefore sentient. 14:19, 5 August 2014 (UTC)

Seems right -- the use of "Sapient" to indicate awareness is a sci-fi only derived meaning Spongebog (talk) 15:39, 5 August 2014 (UTC)

Rum incident at Apollo 12 (again)

I did some investigations on this:

  • Pete Conrad died in 1999 — no chance to ask him.
  • At [1] there was no way for a contact.
  • But at [2] I found a contact email address. There was a nice and prompt reply to my question:
Sorry to disappoint, but we have nothing to add re: Rum Incident.  We are all just lost as to being able to explain it any further.
Thank you for writing, we hope that you can find what you are looking for.
We are also fans of Apollo xii ;o)

Thanks to Linda for this reply.

So, that harpoon on 1969/70 is still a mystery — even more because it returned back to Earth.--Dgbrt (talk) 19:48, 8 August 2014 (UTC)

Maybe the 1970 reference is to missile testing?: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harpoon_%28missile%29 18:26, 10 September 2014 (UTC)

I have tried to clear up the 'Rum on Apollo 12' explanation section, by explaining that there are various theories, but that no one theory has yet been proven. I included a reference to the discussion section, as thats where most of the ongoing finding/research/discussion has been recorded. The Harpoon Rum theory has been left because it seems that this theory has some historical precedence (Apollo 8 story), is fairly plausible, and is the type of information which Randall *may* be privy to. It also seems to have fairly widespread support amongst this community. --Pudder (talk) 15:16, 24 September 2014 (UTC)

I just found a catalogue of man made items on the moon. Assembled by NASA, it lists everything they know about which has been left behind during lunar exploration. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to list anything which might answer the hapoon question, though that is to be expected as the harpoon is no longer in space for whatever reason. Interestingly, a javelin was left during the Apollo 14 mission. --Pudder (talk) 15:06, 20 November 2014 (UTC)

Um, in the Rosetta Comic/Slideshow, there was a reference to Whaling and Harpoons in one of the frames, like in the title text.Shouldn't this be included? 14:06, 11 November 2016 (UTC)

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