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Kielder Autumn Starcamp 2014

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Yes, we did it again – we stuffed all our camping gear into (and on top of) the car, left Kendal behind and headed north, to the wilds of Northumberland, to attend the Autumn 2014 Kielder Starcamp, an annual gathering of astronomers and skywatchers from across the UK. The event is held at Kielder Campsite – which proudly boasts to being the most remote campsite in England, and it is, it really is in the middle of the back of beyond of nowhere – and is a Must Attend for a hardcore group of sky observers and imagers who love astronomy so much they’re willing to put up with the possibility of having to cower in their tent, or caravan, or mobile home, for several nights, hiding from howling gales and driving rain, just to catch a few hours of blissfully clear, star-frothed sky from one of the darkest places in the UK.

Wherever they live in the world The Weather is the mortal enemy of astronomers, amateur and professional, and it’s an almost Tolkienesque foe for Kielder Starcamp attendees. As if cursed by some ancient, star-hating Northumbrian witch woman, the area seems to attract godawful weather during and before a Starcamp, but amazingly, this year there had been no “The campsite is heavily flooded, so there might not be enough electric hook-up pitches for everyone… so… er… do you really want to come? You don’t have to if you don’t want to! We won’t mind! Honest!” email sent out by the organisers, so we were pretty optimistic as we headed north. We took Peggy with us, hoping she would have become a better and less nervous traveller since the infamous Dalby Forest Trip, when she rather spectacularly projectile vomited inside her travel box, but within half an hour of leaving Kendal she had chucked up all over my hand, and continued to look and be miserable until we were more than halfway and stopped at a Services to wolf down some pasties and bakes from Greggs and give her some fresh air. After that she was much better, and as we rolled onto the Kielder Campsite, welcomed by several of our fellow astronomers, she was looking much better.

But of course it was raining when we arrived, so we had to pitch our tent in the rain, again, and were both pretty damp by the time we had finished…

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Peggy watched from the car, comfy in her little camp beneath the steering wheel…

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With the tent pitched and our home for the next four days set up, we went for a wander, seeing who was there already, catching up with old friends, and, of course, wondering if we’d get to see any stars that night…

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As we wandered the campsite we saw that there were already quite a few tents, caravans and  mobile homes at the campsite, and several telescopes set up outside them, hidden beneath heavy cloths and tarpaulins, which proved to be a good move because not long after our first visit to the warm room the heavens opened and that was it, we were in our tent for the night. I kept checking the sky through the night, and once or twice a couple of stars peeked their heads out between the clouds but it never seemed clear enough to me to make it worth going out, not when I was there to take photos, so I stayed in the tent, safe and snug with Peggy and Stella fast asleep in their bed, Peg curled up on Stella’s pillow cross the tent from me…

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The next day, Friday, dawned overcast and grey, but it soon began to clear, allowing me to take some photos of the Sun, with its giant sunspot group, through my zoom lens and Canon DSLR…

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First photos in the bag it was time to head down the campsite and up the hill to the Castle, where the first of many “Stargazer Full Breakfasts” awaited. On the way I was able to look at the Sun through a kick ass solar telescope, and saw the sunspot group and its neighbouring filaments and prominences in stunning detail. Stella, having been told – to her delight – that free ice lollies were on offer in the warm room, made short work of one as we headed down the gravel path…

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Breakfast was gorgeous, as usual, a plate overflowing with sausages, beans, tomatoes, mushrooms and egg, with golden toast on the side, and filled us up well for the next few hours. Unfortunately, by teatime the rain had returned, with a vengeance, so back into the tent we fled, to read, eat chocolate and marvel at Peggy’s ability to squeeze into the smallest, tightest space available. The rain continued, so we put on a DVD to watch (the previous week’s episode of Doctor Who) but even with headphones on it was impossible to block out the sound of the rain, or of our neighbours, the loudest bunch of Scottish astronomers I have ever heard in my life, who seemed to have two volume levels – Loud and Ridiculously Loud – as they waited out the rain in their tent. I can still hear them now, I swear…

By ten pm it was still raining, but I was catching glimpses of stars through gaps in the cloud when I poked my head out of the tent, so I felt quite optimistic that I might see something… and that optimism paid off, because at around 11.30pm the cloud began to tear open and the sky began to fill with stars…

Which was wonderful! I’ve always said that seeing stars at a starcamp is a bonus, you have to go for the social side, to catch up with people, make new friends and contacts, enjoy the talks, browse the trade stands etc, and you can’t go to one expecting or demanding to see any because the weather will destroy you, but really, a Starcamp without at least a couple of starry hours is a crushing disappointment, so as I looked out of the tent and saw the sky full of stars on that Friday night my first thought was “YES!!!!” I grabbed my camera, pulled on my wellies, and headed out into the night, leaving Stella and Peggy curled up together by the fan heater.

And for the next two hours or so, on and off, I was able to take some of the best photos I’ve ever taken. At first the sky was a bit misty, a bit out of focus, and banks of cloud rolled in and out again, but for about half an hour, maybe a little more, there was not a cloud in sight, and the sky above the campsite was cold as flint and just as sharp too, allowing me to take images of the Milky Way I’ve dreamed of taking for a long time. I took other photos too – the Big Dipper shining above our tent, the stars of Cassiopeia and Perseus hanging above the treetops, M31 glowing softly in the night – and here are the best ones from that blessed time…

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But as pretty as those pictures are, I was there to take portraits of the Milky Way, really, and that’s what I did, image after image after image, which I later stitched together using the freeware “Autostitch” software and then enhanced with my various image processing programs. Here are the best. I hope you like them…

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That’s our tent, beneath the Milky Way…

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Gorgeous, aren’t they? I am so pleased with those! But obviously the Milky Way wasn’t actually that bright, I’ve enhanced and stretched those images to make them look more dramatic. If you want to know what the Milky Way actually looked like, I’ve made a Before and After comparison. left – the images straight out of the camera, and stitched together with no processing, which pretty much shows what the Milky Way looked like to the naked eye. And on the right, the enhanced version…

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I wonder which one you prefer..?

Kielder can be a cruel, cruel place for its loyal, visiting astronomers. Time and time again over the course of a starcamp it allows us brief, tantalising glimpses of stars through tattered gaps in its clouds, only to close those gaps up again and run away, laughing. Other times the sky clears enough to see stars, but the air between us and them is so saturated with dew that telescope and camera lenses mist up as if breathed on by a wraith. Other times a lone gap appears in the cloud cover, perfectly clear, a window onto the universe beyond, sprayed with jewel-like stars… but that’s all, everything else remains hidden. It’s enough to make even the most dedicated astronomer sink to his or her knees into the mud, like Charlton Heston collapsing before the shattered Statue of Liberty, and howl “Nooooooooooooooooooooooooo!!!” at the sky…

But…

Sometimes the wicked Kielder SkyGods take pity on the poor, pathetic, optimistic mortals cowering in their saturated tents, caravans and mobile homes far below, and with a wave of their hands sweep the sky clear of cloud, leaving behind something… wonderful. And that’s what we had on Friday night. Just for a couple of hours mind, no longer than that, but it made everything else worthwhile.Standing in the mud outside our tent I took more than a hundred photos, and when I was done I did what I always tell others to do – I deliberately stepped away from the camera and just looked. I put my head back and looked at the Milky Way cutting the sky in half, as if someone had airbrushed it across the sky. I watched icy Capella winking at me through the swaying treetops, following the silver sequins of the Pleiades into the sky. I watched a shooting star skip across the heavens like a flat stone skimmed across a pond, slicing through the Great Square of Pegasus before fading away like an ember spat out of a fire. I looked up and just breathed it all in, marvelling again at the sheer, pure beauty of a clear night sky, when the stars look like a sackful of emeralds, sapphires and garnets tossed up into the sky…

Of course it couldn’t last. By half one there was more cloud than stars again, so I retreated to bed, more than happy with the photos I had taken, and telling myself that if every other night was cloudy I would be happy with what I’d seen and photographed during that clear couple of hours… which turned out to be a good thing, because I never managed to take my camera out under the stars again…

Saturday is “Trade and Talks” day at Kielder Starcamp, with an afternoon of events for attendees to enjoy up at the castle. I was one of the guest speakers this year, so after another scrummy breakfast I headed back to the tent fo finish my talk by adding the very latest images of Comet 67P taken by Rosetta into my Powerpoint. Then back up to the castle, and there was just time for a quick temptation-fighting look around the trade stands before I went into the lecture room to set up my laptop and prepare to give my talk…

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The room was full, as usual, for the talks, and I think my talk – on the exciting Rosetta mission to Comet 67P – seemed to go down well, and lots of people came up to me afterwards to say how much more excited about the mission, and Philae’s Nov 12th landing, than they had been, which was good to hear. The other speakers’ talks were fascinating. Ace astro-photographer Dave Williams, a Kielder veteran, explained the story behind the taking of his beautiful, award-winning image of the California Nebula…

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…and astronomer Andy Newsam spoke enthusiastically about the Liverpool Telescope and how it is being used by schools to do serious astronomical research…

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After the talks there was just time to look quickly again at the trade stands, and drag myself away from the table selling the iOptron star tracker I want so, so much, then back to the tent. We had hoped for the sky to be clear at tea time, to allow us to leave the campsite and head up to the Kielder Observatory to watch the Saturn Occultation, but as we headed back to the tent the few scraps of blue were being devoured by banks of big, angry, black clouds that scudded across the sky like phantoms, and by five pm the sky was completely overcast and the rain was spattering our tent again, so we gave up on the occultation, zipped up, cooked tea, and then settled back to watch a DVD – “Alpha Papa”, the Alan Patridge film which was hilarious, I can recommend it very highly – and enjoyed it, even with a horde of increasingly-inebriated Scottish stargazers braying like extras from “Braveheart” in the background…

No stars that night, just rain and wind, nothing too serious, but enough to destroy all hope of my camera taking any more images. But in our tent all was peaceful, and as I lay on my bed, reading “Red Mars”… again… Peggy and Stella were curled up again, oblivious to the rain…

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On Saturday night we treated ourselves to a proper meal at the Anglers Arms – Cumberland sausage and onion gravy, in a huge Yorkshire Pudding, with chips, followed by Sticky Toffee Pudding and Ice Cream if you were wondering – then headed back to the tent, hopeful of seeing some stars but that was not to be…

Sunday dawned cloudy, misty and damp, and we went up for breakfast in the rain, and came back in the rain too… but it takes more than a drop of rain to get Stella down… :-)

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By the time we reached the tent it was raining pretty heavily, and everywhere we looked people were packing up, determined to get away before the forecast bad weather hit. But we were going nowhere, it takes more than a bit of wind and rain to stop us camping, so we just stayed in and watched another DVD in the afternoon (the most modern version of “The Three Musketeers” which had had a real slagging off when it was released but turned out to be shamelessly over the top good fun). Sometime during the afternoon the wind started to pick up big time, and our tent was shaken several times by really strong gusts. By the time I started cooking tea the wind was really getting up, ..and that set the pattern for the day, really. We just stayed in the tent, as the rain went on and on, only venturing out to refill water carriers and check emails etc in the warm room. As the hours passed the wind just got stronger and stronger until it really was battering the tent, and at one point our kitchen unit was sent crashing to the floor, scattering cups, plates and stuff in all directions. That was when I knew we were in for a rough night. When I visited the warm room one last time the site manager, Steve, kindly offered us the use of one of the site’s pods if things got to the point where we had to evacuate our tent, which was very good of him. I thanked him, but hoped it wouldn’t come to that…

Back at the tent, with the camping field plunged into darkness, we just battened down the hatches and, after moving all the heavy stuff to the outside edge of the tent, for extra weight, waited to see what would happen. And as the rain slashed against us, bucketload after bucketload, the wind just got stronger and stronger, brutally slapping our tent again and again and again, slamming it from side to side and making its Tardis-blue fabric crack and smack like the sails of a ship caught in a storm out at sea. At one point we actually heard a gust of wind coming at us through the trees, like that T Rex in Jurassic Park… a deep, angry growling, growing in volume – and then WHUMPF!!! It hit our tent full on, pushing the whole thing – and us inside it – forwards as if we had struck an iceberg…

And we had that all night. All night. Peggy and Stella slept through most of it, only waking occasionally, but I hardly slept; I couldn’t, knowing that if our tent collapsed, or was blown over, we wouldn’t have much time to grab Peggy and get out. So I lay there, reading “Red Mars” as the tent bucked around me, never turning my torch off, just in case…

At around five am the winds finally died down, and I allowed myself to sleep, pretty sure we were finally safe…

Monday, our last day, and I headed out to check our poor tent was still in one piece. It was; none of its poles had buckled, despite groaning in protest all night as the wind tugged them to and fro. It was thoroughly soaked tho, the saturated fabric hanging off its poles, and it had come loose at the front too… Below: before, and after…

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I headed out to take a look around, and found that the campsite had been transformed overnight into a series of small ponds surrounded by green…

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Eventually the wind and rain died down enough to allow us to head up for breakfast, after we had made a start on packing away the tent and its contents, stuffing our sleeping bags and quilts into their bags and unplugging all the electrics. After our last hearty breakfast we refilled the car and then collapsed the tent – which, after countless hours of rain, was absolutely saturated and weighed twice as much as it does when dry – cramming it into its bag and physically heaving it into the back of the car.

And that was that. Our Kielder Autumn Starcamp was over for another year.

Kielder was our first Starcamp. and it holds a very special place on our hearts. When we drive onto the campsite that first time, wide-eyed, innocent newbies not knowing what to expect, and fearful of being ignored, or worse, we were – literally – welcomed with open arms by the organisers, Lynn and Kevin, and since then I like to think we’ve carved out a little place of our own there. We’ve made some great new friends there, and always look forward to going and dread leaving. Yes, the weather can bad – no, let’s be honest, it can be soul-sappingly godawful, and can leave you feeling you’ve been fighting in, and lost, a war of attrition with Nature itself – but somehow that’s part of the Starcamp’s charm. As you hide in the warm room with a handful of others, listening to the wind howl and the rain lash beyond the blinds, checking your emails on your phone, you exchange knowing looks with your fellow frustrated stargazers and smile a resigned “What can we do? It’s Kielder!” smile before heading out into the night, wondering if tonight is going to be The Night the rain stops and, alerted by the sudden silence, everyone emerges from their tents and caravans and gazes up at a spectacular starry sky…

We’re back there in February, of course, for the Spring starcamp. Hope to see you there.

Catching up with goings on at 67P…

If you’re a regular reader you’ll have noticed a break in our programmes over the past week or so. That;s because I was, as we used to say in the days of the early internet, “AFK” (“Away From Keyboard”) . yes, I do occasionally put my laptop down, venture out into the Real World and do.. stuff… and last weekend Stella and I headed up to the wilds of Northumberland to attend the Autumn 2014 Kielder Starcamp. I didn’t go completely cold turkey on Rosetta tho; while I was there I downloaded the latest images whilst huddled over my laptop in the campsite “warm room” – a little refuge from the driving rain and howling wind which traditionally batter the campsite during astronomy events held there – and I gave an illustrated talk about Rosetta’s mission during the Saturday “speakers” session, which went down really well, and afterwards many people told me that they hadn’t really been aware of the mission before but were very excited about the Nov 12th landing after my presentation. So, job done there, I think! :-)

Anyway, back in civilisation now, and time to catch up with what’s been happening out  there at 67P…

First, and I’m sure many of you will already have seen  this by now, an absolutely STUNNING short sci fi film, referring to the Rosetta mission, has been released, and it is a feast for both eye and imagination. I am not even going to try to describe it here, there’s just no point. Instead, if you haven’t seen it yet – or even if you have, and just want to drool over it again – here’s a link to the film…

“Ambition”

But what about the real comet, and the Rosetta mission? Since I headed north quite a few new images have been released, so here’s a “catch up gallery” of them, and some enhanced crops I made from them…

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WOW! Look at all that activity! And that was what was happening to 67P WEEKS ago, it’s an old image; the comet must be going absolutely nuts by now! Even more remarkable, that’s – you might want to sit down before I say this – an OSIRIS image!!! No, really, it is, it’s true… Here’s another…

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Some more images…

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That’s the latest ESA-produced mosaic of a quartet of navcam images, this time a set taken on October 24th. Again you can see that because the comet has rotated relative to the spacecraft between exposures it’s just not possible to make them into a single, seamless image, but there is now so much detail visible to ROSETTA’s navcam that it’s wonderful to just roam around its images, picking out sections of the landscape and isolating and enhancing them. Which is what I’ve done here…

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Now, that’s another view of those “enigmatic dunes” spotted a week or so ago. Meanwhile, elsewhere…

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That’s a close up of the “crack” many people are so fascinated by. Is it a crack, a sign that the twin lobes of 67P are in danger of splitting? Or is it just an old fissure in the ground that we’re seeing “open up” as material on its sides is dislodged by the comet’s thawing and falling into it? Time will tell…

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Now, I love that view, it’s so…busy. All those ledges, plateaus and peaks, that’s a mountain climber’s paradise right there I reckon, and a planetary geologist’s, too…

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…but that’s my favourite this time round… you really can imagine walking along that terrace, towards and then past the huge boulder sitting on it, moving on to the edge of the cliff and then staring down… and down… and down

More soon, check back, ok?

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WHAT??? Sorry, that was written by our cat as she did a Riverdance on the keyboard, and I left it on ‘cos I thought it was funny, and probably a catchier title than I could come up with at you’re-having-a-laugh o’clock in the morning…

Anyway, the ESA team releasing the navcam images from ROSETTA have knocked it out of the park this time with an absolutely stunning set of pictures showing fascinating detail on the surface of 67P. ROSETTA is now so close to 67P that the 4x navcam image mosaics can no longer show the whole of the comet’s nucleus, and can’t be stitched together seamlessly to make a single image either, but they do allow us wonderful “zoom in” views of the features on its surface. Here are a couple of the latest images, as posted on the ESA blog page…

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Did you recognise “Cheops” up at the top there? The big boulder the OSIRIS team showed us – and little else – in their recent image release? That meandering fissure/crack/whatever the hell it is to the rock’s lower left is intriguing isn’t it?

And then there’s this one,,.

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Oh, there’s SO much going on in that image! At the bottom, that straight feature is bound to have the mission scientists scratching their heads… a close-up seems in order…

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…and look up there to the top right… those very round-looking features… craters? Vents? Collapsed pits? Let’s take a closer look…

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PLEASE click on that to enlarge it, it took a lot of work! ;-)

What’s fascinating about that image is that there are two very distinct types of feature huddled up close together – jagged-edged crater-like features, and what look like raised “pancake” -like mounds which look like they might be “craters in waiting”… are those vents, about to blow? Oh, to see an OSIRIS image of just one of those…

Actually, we’ve seen something like that before -on the nucleus of another comet, Tempel 1, which was visited by not one but two NASA probes, STARDUST and DEEP IMPACT…

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Really can’t wait to see this area in more detail…

Anyway, those are the latest pics. The blog is going to be quiet for a few days, but when we come back we’ll have a good catch up session, ok? In the meantime, keep following what’s happening with ROSETTA by visiting the ESA “Comet Watch” blog each day…

Dunes? On a comet?

Another quartet of ROSETTA navcam images was released by ESA today, and they show the most fascinating detail on the surface of 67P. Before we take a look at some of that detail, here’s ESA’s own mosaic made from the four images…

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As you can see, the rotation of the comet between frames makes it quite impossible now to make all 4 images into a single, smooth mosaic. But that mosaic can still be enhanced to bring out detail in the jets…

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Those jets are really blasting out now aren’t they? Oh, if only ROSETTA had a camera that could see the surface of 67P in much more detail than the probe’s navcams can! Why, then we’d probably be able to see the sources of those jets!

Oh, hang on, it does. I forgot for a moment, I’m sorry…

Zooming in on the most recent images reveals some VERY interesting features indeed. Here, take a look…

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And this one…

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Look, there’s that “crack” we saw a few weeks ago… is that a sign that the two halves of the comet are in danger of splitting, or is it just a fissure or a fault that was produced when the ground beneath slumped or gave way, and is now filling with dust? Intriguing…

But this one… oh boy, this one really caught my eye. Feast your eyes on this, my friends…

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Is that…? Are they…? Yes. It is, and they are…

Dunes. On the surface of a comet. Let’s take a closer look…

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Really? Dunes? On a comet? What could have caused them? Maybe material from over the horizon, coming out of those mysterious vents, is blown over this area and piles up? Or maybe they were caused by the ground here vibrating? Whatever made them, it’s something new, and something fascinating. I never, ever thought I would see dunes on the surface of a comet. We’ve seen them elsewhere before… On Mars, for example…

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…and on Titan…

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…and here on Earth, too…

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…but on a comet? Well, that’s new… Here, then, are the dunes of 67P…

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A Tale of Two Comets

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If you’re interested in comets, it must feel like Christmas for you right now. ESA’s ROSETTA probe is not only sending back beautiful images of comet 67P but is about to drop its Philae lander onto the surface too, and another comet, Siding Spring, is going to “buzz” Mars today, passing the Red Planet at what is a sphincter-tighteningly close distance in astronomical terms. This is a huge story for people “into” space, and the media are picking up on it now too, so if you’re one of those sad, misguided people who believes space exploration and science is boring, and a waste of money, I’d avoid TV news programmes tonight, and probably stay off the internet too; it’s going to be owned by us space geeks today…!

At Mars, the international fleet of spaceprobes now studying the planet will all be trying, one way or another, to study and make measurements of the comet as it whooshes past, either taking pictures or trying to detect it with their suites of instruments. Here on Earth, professional telescopes in every country will turn towards Mars at some point today, hoping to see something, and amateur astronomers across the globe are also training their cameras and telescopes on the planet and comet, watching them slowly come together. It’s a worldwide astronomy festival, bringing people from all countries together, with a common goal – to try and see something very rare, and very special, and record it. Within a few hours camera shutters will start clicking, and clicking, and clicking…

And it’s a pretty safe bet that within hours of being taken, those photos will be online for everyone to see.

Look at all these “assets” NASA will be using to try and catch Comet Siding Spring racing past Mars…

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It’s also a pretty safe bet that within a matter of hours, certainly within a couple of days of being taken, the images recorded by NASA’s hardware will be released to the world for everyone to share and enjoy, isn’t it? In the case of the Mars rovers, Opportunity and Curiosity, those images are going to be coming back so quickly, and released so freely, we may even get to see them before many of the mission scientists do, thanks to the time difference.

And that’s fantastic, isn’t it? Lots of things are described as a “once in a lifetime event” – pop concerts, royal weddings, etc – but a comet swooshing past Mars, almost close enough (in spacey terms) to reach out and touch? Now THAT’S a once in a lifetime event, and here, sitting at our computers, we’ll all be able to follow whatever happens as it happens, or very soon after. Why? Because the scientists behind these missions all “get” that it’s important to share data, especially images, with the public, not just because they actually PAY for their missions, through their taxes, and not only because they know it’s the right thing to do in this modern age, but because they WANT to share their excitement and experiences with the public. They’re obviously still excited by what they do, still in love with the universe, and still want to share that love with others.

Compare that selfless, joyous, generous attitude to the selfish, miserable, miserly, attitude shown by the ROSETTA mission’s OSIRIS camera team, who still, despite repeated pleas from space enthusiasts and the media, refuse to share their incredible high resolution images of the surface of comet 67P. They have taken hundreds, but released barely a handful, and those only grudgingly, when they absolutely had to. In contrast to the brilliant ESA team responsible for releasing pictures taken by the probe’s navcams, it’s clear the OSIRIS team hates releasing their pictures, and have what can only be described as contempt for the people “out here” wanting to see them. Too harsh? No. Absolutely not. And that was proved when they released this image…

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…showing a single boulder tucked away in the top right corner of a frame filled with otherwise blank, empty space. That image is actually a crop of an area of a larger image, and that boulder has other boulders around it which they could easily have shown too. So releasing that was a deliberate, conscious, snarling, contemptuous, two fingered “F**k you!!!” to all the people asking to see more OSIRIS images. Either they thought no-one would notice, or they didn’t care if anyone noticed. Either way, some might say it was a rather childish and pathetic thing to do. I imagine they had a laugh about it that night, maybe even felt pretty smug about it, but seriously, it made them look very, very small and petty.

But wait. I keep saying “they” and “them”, talking in the plural, but that’s probably unfair. I shouldn’t tar the whole OSIRIS team with the same brush, I’m sorry.  I’m sure many of them actually want to share their gorgeous pictures with the world, because they love science, are excited by what they’re seeing, and are proud of their success. This must be frustrating for them, too.

No. This probably comes down to one person. Somewhere, sat behind a desk, in an office within fortress MPS, someone – an individual – is personally stopping the OSIRIS images being released to the world. That one person has the final say. That one person has the power to show the world comet 67P in all its gnarled, tortured, spiky, boulder-strewn glory. That one person has had access to all the OSIRIS images taken so far, has seen them all on their monitor, has shaken their head again and again at the bewildering structures they show…  and then decided that the public, who paid for them to be taken, who are desperate to see them, who have been told by ESA for *years* how stunning ROSETTA’s images would be, has no right to see them.

Shame on them.

But why? Why are they doing this? What possible reason could they have?

Well, there are two possibilities. Firstly, maybe they do genuinely believe it’s The Right Thing To Do. Maybe they honestly think that by holding back the images for 6 months they are protecting their scientists, and their careers, by ensuring that no-one else can beat them to the priceless science which will result from the pictures. That’s actually an admirable thing, and I would respect them for that IF they were releasing SOME of the images which simply look stunning but do not contain anything revolutionary. It is simply not possible that every single OSIRIS image taken shows something so new, so paradigm-shifting, so scientifically explosive that it can’t be given to the public right now. Whoever is sitting on the images could easily, easily release some which had been lowered in resolution, but which still showed things never seen before, without any risk of harm to their own career or the careers of their team. But they choose not to. Why?

The other explanation is that they simply do not want to share their images with the world, and simply do not care what the rest of us think, or want. They don’t think we’re worthy of them, and don’t think they owe us anything. Not a damned thing.

And that doesn’t just make me flaming mad, it makes me incredibly sad too.

Sad because, once, who knows how many years ago, the person sitting on the OSIRIS images, like Smaug curled up on his horde of gold, was actually once one of us – someone fascinated by science, the universe and how it works. They were once a starry-eyed kid, probably sat in a school library when they should have been outside kicking a ball around or chasing their friends, pouring over the gorgeous images in its astronomy books, reading about stars and planets and comets and other wonders. They once stood in their garden, or in their nearest park, or on top of a hill, clutching a star map, looked up at the starry sky, fell in love with it, and realised they wanted to know more about it…

tumblr_lk9855Q6FI1qcgk6ro1_400_large

They went through school, college, and university, learning all they could, gathering qualifications, still besotted with the universe, determined to dedicate their life to unravelling some of the mysteries of the cosmos and share their answers with the world. They got a job which allowed them to explore other worlds through the unblinking eyes of some of the most sophisticated cameras ever built, and see wonders never before seen by human eyes, as they had always dreamed of.

Jeez, what happened to that person?

If they’re reading this, and I know my blog *is* read by people on the ROSETTA mission, I have a question for them: at which point did you decide that, having worked your ass off to reach an amazingly powerful and privileged position – to be capable of taking and then sharing with the world the most stunningly beautiful images of a comet ever taken in the history of Mankind – you would personally stop people seeing those images?

What happened to you? What turned you from that starry-eyed space mad kid into the image Scrooge you are now?

As I’m writing this, images of Comet Siding Spring approaching Mars are being posted online, almost live. Taken by amateur telescopes in Australia and across the parts of the world where Mars is visible, they show something remarkable, something literally amazing. The people taking these photos could keep hold of them, process them, make them look prettier, write papers based on them, but no, they’re putting them online so quickly I can barely keep up. They are happy for the world to see them, and through them to share in this momentous day. It’s a wonderful thing. I feel all warm and fuzzy, and very very grateful to be seeing images of an event so special, so rare, they will still be being marvelled at in a thousand years time, when brave men and women are starting bold new lives on worlds orbiting other stars. It really is that historic.

Meanwhile, on someone’s hard drive(s) in an office in Germany, images of another comet, which are even more breathtaking, even more historic, are sitting uselessly in folders, imprisoned there by one person. Some of those images could be released now, right now, and within a few hours would be all over the internet, inspiring people around the world in the same way the images of Siding Spring will do in the months and years to come.

It’s ridiculous. It’s absolutely bloody ridiculous.

Seriously now, whoever is in charge of releasing the OSIRIS images – yes, you, if you’re reading this – stop ****ing about and let some of them free. You can do that without harming any careers, or losing any science, you know you can, just as you know it’s the right thing to do.

And if you don’t know that any more, if real life as a scientist has jaded and dulled you so much that you are happy to just keep those images to yourself without  feeling any obligation to the rest of us, sat here in our living rooms, offices, classrooms and bedrooms, then please, I ask you, think back to how you felt when you were that kid in the library, or in the park, or on top of that hill, newly-besotted with the universe, just embarking on that love affair with science. Remember that? Well, you have the power to make others feel that same way by sharing your lovely images with the world.

Use it.

You’re going to land **there**????

Over the past couple of days more images of Philae’s landing site, “Site J”, have been released, allowing us our clearest and closest view yet of the area yet. They have also given us a stark reality check about how hard it is going to be to land Philae safely.

Here’s one of the most recent images released by ESA…

Philae_s_primary_landing_site_mosaic v2

,…which is actually a mosaic of two separate OSIRIS images. Philae is due to land in the middle of that area on November 12th. Now, at that scale it looks fairly flat. A bit bumpy here and there, true, but nothing too dangerous right? That’s because you really can’t get any sense of scale from an image like that, you have nothing familiar to compare the boulders, ledges and scarps with, do you? I mean, looking at that image, are those boulders a metre or a hundred metres across? You just can’t tell. No, to be able to really appreciate the challenge facing Philae you need to be able to mentally grasp the scale of things at Site J, and that means adding something to that image you *know* the size of, and can then compare everything else to.

I’ve been trying to do that, unsuccessfully, but astronomy writer Richard Berry has created something which really brings home the scale of features at Philae’s landing site. By adding a 100m long scale bar, and a 75m long 777 airliner to the scene, he shows us just how “busy” the site is…

10703707_10203930105465767_19434078671361279_n

Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Woah…. look at that! THAT brings it home now, doesn’t it? Let’s take a look at the size of some of those rocks scattered around the landing site…

scale rocks

<<< gulp >>>

So, with this in mind, how big would Philae be in comparison? And how dangerous is the little lander’s landing site?

Well, here is photo showing ROSETTA under construction, with Philae nestled inside… note her teeny size compared to the people around the probe…

philae  c

Okay… so, how big is Philae compared to the boulders and other features shown in the latest images of Site J..?

I’ll show you. But warning – you might want to sit down before you take a look at the next image..,

THIS big…

crop philae rocks

Oh… my…

crop philae rocks crop

I feel a bit weak at the knees, don’t you? :-(

I think we’ll look at something else!

Today ESA released its latest set of four navcam images of 67P, and again they offer us some fascinating views of the surface of the comet. Here are my latest “tour” photos…

crop1

crop2

Every day ESA offers us new wonders doesn’t it? Full credit to the Outreach and media teams who, through the release of these navcam images, and the excellent ROSETTAS blogs, are making sure people with an interest in the mission are kept informed about what’s happening and allowed to “feel a part” of the mission.

I’ll end this post with a look back at an image released a couple of days ago which I didn’t have time to post at the time. It’s another “selfie” of ROSETTA with 67P in the background, and it’s beautiful…

Rosetta_mission_selfie_at_16_km

…and a closer look at the comet by itself…

67P

…and in less than a month’s time Europe will attempt Mankind’s first ever landing on that comet.

I know…

Europe’s “Apollo Moment” Approaches…

Big news today for everyone involved in and following the ROSETTA mission to Comet 67P – after much deliberation, Landing Site “J” has been confirmed as the primary landing site for ROSETTA’s “Philae” lander, and on November 12th the European Space Agency will attempt Mankind’s historic first landing on a comet here

Philae_s_primary_landing_site_mosaic v2

That’s my sharpened and enhanced version of an image released today accompanying the official press announcement , which you can find here…

Landing Site J Confirmed

And here’s a sharpened and enhanced crop of the central part of that image, zooming on on Philae’s landing site…

close up J

I can only imagine the thoughts and fears running through the minds of the Philae and ROSETTA teams as they look at these images. There’s so much at stake on the 12th, when little Philae drifts away from ROSETTA and then begins to fall down to the surface of 67P, SO much. This is truly Europe’s Apollo Moment. Just like the Moon landings, nothing like this has ever been attempted before, and it will be a long, long time before anything like this is ever attempted again. Not even NASA has tried to do this, it’s so hard, so ridiculously hard.

Make no mistake about it, this is genuinely history making, and it may not work.

What is he saying??? Of COURSE it will work! They ALWAYS pull this stuff off! No. “They” don’t. Sometimes missions fail, and Philae’s may fail, cruelly, when she’s so close to her goal. There’s a very real possibility that Something Will Go Wrong on Nov 12th. Philae might not even detach from ROSETTA – a computer command may go unheard, a mechanism might fail, a line of software might be faulty – and might just stay there, clutching at ROSETTA for dear life, like a parachutist refusing to jump out of the plane. Or Philae might detach just fine, only for something to wrong when she lands. She may land in a pit of cometary quickdust and sink into, like a baby mammoth in a tar pit, it before she even has time to cry for help. Or she may hit a boulder and be smashed to pieces, her remains, shiny as the fragments of Christmas tree baubles, left scattered over the dark, cold ice. Or she may land just fine, only for her radio to fail, leaving her stranded on the surface, healthy and hearty, but mute, or deaf, or both. That would be the cruelest fate of all.

But…

If everything goes according to plan, on November 12th Philae will fall away from the albatross-winged probe which held her inside her arms and carried her safely halfway across the solar system, past asteroids and worlds, through a decade of cold and darkness, and drop down towards that 4km chunk of ancient, gnarled ice and dust as black as squid ink which has been tumbling around the Sun for countless mlilennia, and set down there, exactly as planned, in some sweet, safe place amongst the boulders and scree fields, between the crumbling ledges and the dust-covered slopes. And then, soon after, with the world watching, she will send back the first images ever taken on the surface of a comet, images which will feature in a whole generation of astronomy books.

And the best thing of all is we will all be there too. We’ll be able to follow events on our computers, tablets and phones (on our phones!!! Isn’t that insane! People will be following the landing on their phones, sat at work, or on a bus, or as they sit in their gardens! When ROSETTA was launched no-one on the planet HAD an iPhone! There was no such thing as Twitter!) as they unfold, and even as the ROSETTA team are cheering in Mission Control, hugging each other, slapping each others backs and punching the air with delight, triumph and relief, the first picture sent back by Philae will flash around the globe, to feature on TV news broadcasts and be posted on every space enthusiast’s blog, forum, Twitter feed and Facebook page, each time shouting out to the world “Look what we did! Look what Mankind did! We landed on a comet! A COMET!!!”

That will be a helluva thing, won’t it? I’ve taken the day off work so I can sit here, with my laptop on my knee, drinking in the whole thing. I don’t want to miss a moment of that day, and my heart will be in my mouth – when my mouth isn’t full of tea and chocolate biscuits, of course – until Philae’s fate is revealed.

If Philae lands safely, Europe will have done something truly spectacular, something that NASA, the Russians and everyone else will marvel at. And they will deserve it. The ROSETTA mission is exploration in its purest form, a mission to Know Somewhere New, and everyone in Europe should be proud that their space agency was even brave enough to try such a sphincter-tighteningly frightening thing.

But if something goes wrong on the 12th – and we really, truly, honestly must accept that possibility exists – and Philae fails, it’s important everyone remembers that Philae is really the icing on the cake of a mission which has already been one of the most successful in the history of space exploration. Since leaving Earth ROSETTA has sent back breathtaking images of Earth, and Mars, flown by and studied asteroids, and rendezvoused with a comet in deep, deep space. Since arriving at 67P ROSETTA has sent back stunning pictures which have revolutionised our image and understanding of comets. The science ROSETTA’s instruments has already done will keep astronomers busy for a generation, and lead to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the nature of the solar system’s most enigmatic members. So if Philae meets some terrible doom on or above the surface of 67P it will be awful, of course, but no-one should consider the ROSETTA mission itself a failure. ROSETTA’s primary mission was to reach 67P and study it as intensively as possible, AND try to land Philae on it. So whatever happens on the 12th ROSETTA will already have been a stunning success, and when the 12th turns to the 13th there will still be many exciting months of work ahead for the ROSETTA team, as the probe accompanies the comet on its journey to, around and away again from the Sun. We’ll see 67P waking up, bursting to life, maybe even splitting in two, and then falling quiet again before ROSETTA’s mission ends. If that prospect doesn’t make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, then nothing will.

So, Philae’s landing site is confirmed. It’s “J”, and we are now less than a month away from what will go down in history as one of the most thrilling days in the space age. It’s important to understand just how hard it will be to land on 67P. This really is ESA’s version of a Mars rover landing, or, as I said, a Moon landing. This truly is Europe’s Apollo Moment. Whatever happens on the 12th, ESA will never be the same again, nor will science. It’s that important.

So, best wishes to everyone on the ROSETTA mission. You’ve already done incredible things, shown us incredible sights, and carried out incredible science. If Philae lands safely on the 12th we will cheer and shout and cry with you, and set out on a new adventure beside you. But if it doesn’t, know this: we are proud of you now, and will be proud of you whatever happens on that day.

Now go, and catch that comet!

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