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Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
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Harpoons
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.

Explanation

The latter peak on this graph refers to the Rosetta unmanned spacecraft. As part of its mission, it's carrying two tethers to anchor itself to the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. Rosetta was launched in March 2004 (as shown in the graph) and is scheduled to encounter the comet in August 2014, making this a timely comic.

The first peak is probably a joke. Officially, Apollo 12 carried neither harpoons nor rum. However, as a former NASA contractor, Randall may know more about space shenanigans than the general public, and may be implying (perhaps jokingly) that a bottle of the Harpoon brand of Jamaican rum made it aboard.

The caption implies that the spacecraft is sentient and believes that its mission is to kill the comet. This is likely a parody of the novel Moby Dick, in which Captain Ahab hunts a sperm whale named Moby Dick using traditional harpoons out of vengeance for the whale's biting off his leg.

Transcript

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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