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Closing in on 67P…

As I write this – on a wet and windy afternoon in Kendal, when the Cumbrian Sky isn’t fifty but a hundred different shades of grey – the ESA Rosetta probe is now less than 1000km from the icy nucleus of Comet 67P. And while there has been no increase in the number of hi resolution images being released by the OSIRIS camera team (time to face facts, Stu: They Just Don’t Care what people out here want  to see… get over it… move on…) the navcam images are being released daily, which is brilliant, and yesterday a new OSIRIS image was released, and we are starting to see actual features on the nucleus. Let’s take a look at the latest images.

First, here’s the navcam image released yesterday…

30 July NAVCAM

That image confirms the basic shape of the comet – a small part and a large part stuck together in the middle – and there are tantalising hints of features on its surface. Now, the first thing people like me do when an image like that is released is to fire up our favourite image processing programs and try to sharpen it up and bring out details lurking in it. It’s a very inexact thing, and everyone who does it… well, most people who do it… are well aware that as soon as you start messing about with carefully manipulating and enhancing images like that you run the risk of actually adding features which aren’t there, confusing matters for everyone. Sharpening, boosting contrast and altering the curves of an image can introduce imaging artefacts to it, giving the impression of craters, hills and other features which aren’t actually there. So, I had a go on that latest navcam image, and this is what came out the other end…

30 July NAVCAMb

…which looks sharper, yes, and does give the impression of a cratered and hilly body, but really, there’s no way of knowing if anything there is real or not, so it’s just a bit of fun really.

However, the new OSIRIS image does show some real detail, most people are agreed, and here it is…

Comet_on_29_July_2014

Now, something as reasonably sharp as that will stand up to some enhancing and manipulating, so what does it look like after a spot of that?

Comet_on_29_July_2014b

Now that IS interesting… can’t wait to see the next OSIRIS image (but I’ll have to for another week – I know! Stop it!!) which will surely tell us just how cratered the nucleus is. It should also tell us if there is a big boulder sitting on the nucleus (that big black thing roughly in the centre of the nucleus, perhaps sitting on a ridge overlooking the “waist” of the nucleus..?

Comet_on_29_July_2014d

There is a lot more coverage of Rosetta’s mission on t’internet now, as more and more bloggers and science writers wake up to the fact that something very special indeed is a about to happen – Mankind’s first rendezvous with, and landing on, a comet. But some have been covering the story from the start, for all 7bn miles of Rosetta’s epic journey, and one of the best, The Planetary Society’s Emily Lakdawalla, has illustrated her latest excellent blog post with a brilliant image showing how big Comet 67P is compared to the comets visited by other spacecraft in the past. Here it is…

20140731_comets_sc_0-000-020_2014

Image credits: Halley: Russian Academy of Sciences / Ted Stryk. Borrelly: NASA / JPL / Ted Stryk. Tempel 1 and Hartley 2: NASA / JPL / UMD. Churyumov-Gerasimenko: ESA / Rosetta / MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS / UPD / LAM / IAA / SSO / INTA / UPM / DASP / IDA. Wild 2: NASA / JPL. Montage by Emily Lakdawalla.

 

Now, if you look carefully at that image something very interesting jumps out at you… of the seven comets now visited, photographed and studied by spacecraft, four appear to be “binary objects” like 67P. What does that mean? What’s its significance? Well, that’s one of the questions Rosetta will be trying to answer. But might it mean that collisions between comet nuclei are – or were, once – common “out there”?

As I’ve been writing this today’s navcam image has been posted online, and yes, detail is definitely appearing on the nucleus…

navcam july 31st

Wow! That’s a big improvement on yesterday’s! And with just a little bit of good-natured amateur enhancing, this is what appears…

navcam july 31st b

We now have several days worth of images to compare, and it seems to me that we can now start to be reasonably confident about some of the features on those images being real and not just imaging artefacts. Maybe. Perhaps.

31 labels

Then again they might all just be artefacts, I don’t know. But, you see, this is EXACTLY why we’d love to be able to see more of the OSIRIS images! Not so we can scoop scientists to their discoveries – seriously, give me a break! – but so we can share their thrill of discovery as new features swim into view. That’s one of the most exciting parts of any mission.

From now on the navcam images of the nucleus of comet 67P should show more and more detail, and we will start to be able to map the nucleus’s surface features, at least roughly. Just think about that. After a journey of almost 7bn miles, lasting almost a decade, a probe called Rosetta is closing in on a comet, a body just a few miles across, little more than a mote of dust compared to the size of the solar system, and soon we’ll be close enough to be able to map it. Isn’t that fantastic?

 

 

Comet Kerfuffle #2

And so, exactly seven days after they had last gathered, members of the “Science Interested Community” assembled around the Great Tree of Twitter, eager to hear the latest word from the ESA Rosetta probe. For seven days their frustration had been great, as they recalled how, years earlier, when the Collectors had gone from house to house, demanding taxes to help pay for the construction of their great machine of exploration, they had assumed they would be allowed to fly alongside it, at least in their imaginations, seeing all the magical images it took of those faraway, exotic worlds in their names and at their expense. But that had not come to pass. Only a handful of pictures had been given to them over the years, and those had been handed over with such obvious and great reluctance that their frustration had risen and risen…

 

Finally, after what seemed like an age, a rider appeared in the distance, on the very edge of town, clip-clopping towards them slowly, a scroll clutched in their hand. Dismounting skilfully, the finely-dressed rider strode boldly through the murmuring, restless crowds, pushing through groups of men dressed in faded MER t-shirts, past knots of women with unwashed hair tucked under threadbare Pathfinder caps, until they reached the base of the tree where, throwing back her silk hood, she addressed them…

 

“Hear me, good people of the Science Interested Community”, she said loudly, “for I bring great news from Castle ESA. Having heard your anguished pleas and cries, the Great and Merciful Lord OSIRIS has agreed that, from this very day, images taken by the Rosetta navcams will be made available to you. Daily!”

 

A ripple of excitement and disbelief passed through the crowd. Could it be true? Had Great OSIRIS really heard their pleas..?
“Furthermore,” the rider continued, scanning the crowd for troublemakers, “as promised, I bring with me a new and Wondrous Image from the Great Lord OSIRIS himself, which I will now post on the Tree of Twitter for you all to see.” With that she walked the last few feet to the tree, reached out with her steady hand and slapped the scroll against the rough bark. “But be aware, everyone gathered here,” she warned, turning to face the crowd once more, her voice now low and dark, “this Wondrous Image is posted on the condition that no-one tampers with or corrupts it, or uses the dark arts of image processing, GIMP sorcery or wavelet witchcraft of any kind to enhance it and bring out any details not immediately obvious. Such wicked practices would surely anger the Great Lord. And…” She let the warning trail off, the threat obvious but unspoken. Finally she hammered a spike through the scroll and into the body of the tree, leaving the parchment hanging from it like a pennant.
“Come forth, and marvel at the comet!” she called, raising her hands to the sky and the crowd cheered, surging forwards, each man, woman and child desperate to see what was on the scroll. And although it was little more than three vaguely-mottled white shapes, on a black background, all who saw it agreed the new image truly was Wondrous!
Smiling, the rider remounted her horse and turned its nose back towards the castle, leaving the good people of the Science Interested Community to their simple pleasures…

——————————————————————————————————–

Ok, so that’s a bit silly… alright, it’s very silly… but that’s what it actually felt like on Thursday when the latest image of Comet 67P was released by the European Space Agency. It felt like a little fragment of Christmas had broken off the main body and fallen to Earth. A new image of 67P! With tantalising hints of detail on its still-blurry surface! And a promise of daily navcam image releases too! Were we dreaming? Had the heatwave baked our brains? No! Look at this…!

 

Comet_on_20_July_2014

 

Gorgeous, isn’t it? :-) Hmmm… I wonder…

 

Comet_on_20_July_2014 b2

 

The release of that latest OSIRIS image of 67P came at the end of what can best be described as an “interesting” week for space enthusiasts and scientists following or involved in the Rosetta mission. The publication of an open letter to ESA from a group of German space enthusiasts, requesting more images from the OSIROS cameras, attracted a lot of attention, and prompted me to write my own blog post making a similar appeal. When Emily Lakdawalla from The Planetary Society asked if she could use my blog post on the Society’s blog I said yes with no hesitation, eager for as many people as possible to be made aware of the situation re the images from Rosetta – or the situation as I understood it anyway. Reaction to my blog was a mixture of enthusiastic agreement (from fellow space enthusiasts) and angry indignation (from scientists), and a mixture of both. I was happy with every comment. After all, it meant the issue was out in the open more than before: the elephant which has been sitting in the middle of the room at ESOC could not be ignored any longer, and a big bright spotlight was now shining right in its face.

 
And although a week after writing my original post I am now much better informed about “The Situation” at ESA re image release, which I’ll try and cut down to basics shortly, and I accept I was unfairly harsh on ESA as an organisation, my own personal view has not changed, not one bit. I firmly believe that more of the images being taken of Comet 67P by Rosetta should be being released, and that it is fundamentally wrong to horde them as they are being horded.

 
So what IS “The Situation”?

 
Well, after a week of reading feedback – public blog comments, Tweets, FB posts etc – from people with either personal involvement in or first hand knowledge of the background to this issue, one thing is clear: the lack of images from Rosetta is not ESA’s fault, and by ESA I mean ESA as a whole, the organisation. In fact, ESA the organisation has very little control over the amount of Rosetta images put out in their name. They are basically given images of the comet by the scientists and teams behind the cameras taking those images, and allowed to release them into the wild, when, and only when, those people say. Because of contracts apparently drawn up just after the Big Bang and signed in blood, ESA has no power to demand more images from the scientists taking the pictures with the cameras onboard Rosetta, and has to take what they’re given. So even if they wanted to release more images – and it’s pretty clear from their enthusiastic Outreach efforts that they do, they really do – they couldn’t. Their hands are tied up in so much historical red tape their fingers are turning blue from lack of circulation. So, no matter how much I or other space enthusiasts may want them to, ESA can’t release any more pictures taken by OSIRIS, the kick-ass high resolution OSIRIS cameras which are returning the best images of the comet, because they are controlled by individual scientists and their organisations.

 
So is that it then? End of the story? Take what you’re given, and be glad of it?

 
“No,” as Yoda told Obi Wan Kenobi, “There is another…”

 
Rosetta is also carrying a smaller camera, the Navcam, which – with a lower resolution and a wider angle view than OSIRIS – is kind of like a spotter ‘scope on an amateur astronomer’s telescope. ESA does control that camera, and has the right to release images taken by it, but so far they have chosen not to, apparently for fear of upsetting the teams behind OSIRIS, who, it has been suggested by several people, might have been annoyed by the possibility of Navcam images “scooping them”, revealing something amazing or just interesting on the comet before they had a chance to target it – and then show it – with their cameras. So, “No,” ESA has always said, “we can’t show you the Navcam images…”

 
And then – as I described in my rather fanciful intro – last Thursday came word that that policy has changed, and ESA will start releasing Navcam images of Comet 67P. Not just “often”, or “regularly”, but “DAILY”!!

 
Hmmmm… not wanting to kick a gift horse in the mouth here, obviously, but can’t help wondering what’s brought about THAT sudden change of heart? I’m sure it has nothing to do at all with the way the spotlight swung around to blaze right in ESA’s blushing face after the Germans posted their letter, and disgruntled Tweets, FB pages and blog posts like mine started to spread. No, nothing at all…

 
Seriously tho, that’s great news, and it has been welcomed by many people following the mission. We were expecting the first daily release on Friday, but word came out of ESA that there’ll be a catch-up release of three images (taken Friday, Saturday and Sunday) on Monday, so we’ll look forward to that! And again, being serious, this is a genuinely big change of policy by ESA. It was something they could do, and they did it, so well done, and thank you, to everyone who helped bring about that change.

 
But… yeah, you knew there was going to be a ‘but’, didn’t you… as welcome as that change of policy is, it still leaves us with that fundamental problem. The main scientists behind the main cameras just don’t seem to want to share any more images than they absolutely have to. Why? What IS their problem? What are they afraid of?

 
Some people have suggested that one of their main fears is that they will somehow be “scooped” by an amateur who spots something on one of their images, and tells the world about it – and then claims the glory for its discovery – before they themselves have a chance to. They are worried that if their data is released to the public before they have had a chance to work with it, it will damage or even ruin their careers, because they won’t be able to use that data, or those images, in professional papers and journals, etc.

 
Let’s put that fear to bed shall we?

 
Firstly, let’s take a step back and look again at what “people like me” are asking for. What we would love to happen with Rosetta is the same as what happens with the Mars rovers and Cassini probe – for  compressed versions of some ( note: some, not all!) of the untouched, uncalibrated “raw” images of the comet sent back by the probe to be posted online on the day they’re received.

 

It’s important to understand the true nature of these images. The probes send back “raw” images, which are not the shiny, sharp-focussed and accurately-coloured ones you see in glossy books or magazines, or the ones which the professional scientists eventually use in their journals, publications and papers, just basic images which are full of info but that info is quite well hidden, and the pics need a lot of work doing to them before they’re ready for use. In the case of the Cassini probe and Mars rovers, these images are then compressed by people working at NASA, to reduce their detail a bit, and it is THESE images, known as “compressed raws”, which are posted online for People Like Me to see. We commonly refer to them as “raw images” but they’re not, and that can result in some confusion sometimes. Anyway, these compressed raws are quite grainy and a little blurry and very, very basic, little more than “first look” JPG snapshots really. But they’re more than good enough for People Like Me, and the general public, because they just show the subject and any features or details on it. After reaching Earth these images are then, over months, processed – enhanced, smoothed, sharpened, combined, etc – to make the high quality calibrated images the scientists work with and use to support their theories and observations, and include in their professional presentations and papers.

 

So, deep breath, let’s be perfectly clear here: all we want to see are compressed versions of more of the the raw images sent back by the probe – and, as I said earlier, we don’t even want to see all of them. We would be more than happy with a single compressed raw image a day, so we could watch the comet nucleus rotating, see surface features roll into and then roll out of view again. That is not a big ask. It really isn’t.

 
And seriously, come on, if there was any risk at ALL of scientists’ careers being put at risk by the public and prompt release of such raw images, does anyone truly believe that the NASA teams behind the Mars rovers and Cassini Saturn probe would allow THEIR compressed raw images to be posted on the internet, almost in real time?

 
Of course they wouldn’t. And the thing is, the papers and journals etc the professionals produce feature very few images anyway, and instead are packed with rune-like charts and diagrams only other scientists can understand, abstract works of art created using data from the hi-tech instruments, sensors and detectors on the probe, not the cameras, which look like they were plucked straight out of a physics text book. We can’t reduce data from space probes to create diagrams like that, don’t be silly.

 
As a scientist once said: “A picture paints a thousand words, but a good graph paints a million…” Okay, so I just made that up, but it’s still true.

 
So suggesting that the release of Rosetta raw images might risk harming the careers of the scientists working on the Rosetta mission is at best a clumsy smokescreen and at worst just wrong –

 
…but hang on, if the raw images are as rubbish as I’ve just said, why do People Like Me want to see them anyway?
Firstly, ok, hands up, it’s partly because we love all this “space stuff” and are, selfishly, just impatient to see new cool pictures from space! But more seriously, we want to see them because many of us use those cool pictures to “Spread the word” about space exploration through our Outreach work. We don’t just want to see those pictures, we need to see them. And use them.(“Use them” for good, scientists, not to wickedly scoop your discoveries or cruelly destroy your careers, calm down…)

 
What the scientists behind the OSIRIS cameras don’t seem to understand – or maybe just don’t care about – is that in the 21st C there is a hunger for their images out here, if not from huge numbers of the general public then at least a good number of People Like Me, space enthusiasts who are tech- and net- and social-media savvy, good communicators, and fantastic ambassadors. We basically work for the world’s space agencies for free, spreading the word about their missions through our Tweets and blogs, FB posts and forum postings.

 

 

That’s what I do. I’m not just “interested in science”, it’s a huge part of my life. I blog and Tweet and use FB, yes, but I am also a children’s science author, and for three decades now I have also been giving Outreach talks in schools and to community groups in any school, community centre or drafty church hall with a power socket and a blank wall. I take my Outreach work extremely seriously, so I want – I NEED – new pictures to put into my talks, to keep them as up to date and relevent as possible, so I can show those previously-mentioned classrooms full of kids, and community centres and church halls full of farmers, teachers, housewives and retired people the wonders of the universe and help them appreciate just what amazing things we can do.

 
But my talks are VERY heavily weighted with NASA images, simply because they release more. Whenever I have a talk to give I can be pretty sure there will be a NEW image from them, of Mars, or Saturn, or Mercury, to put into my talk, replacing an older one, thus keeping my talk fresh. That simply isn’t the case with ESA images.

 
Which is not ESA’s fault, it seems, but because of its image release policy ESA’s profile is so much lower than NASA’s. In fact, I think the Rosetta PIs would would be suprised – and many others in ESA depressed – to know just how many people who come to my talks, people interested in space, know very little about ESA. Some don’t even know it exists. They think space = NASA. And why is that? Because NASA’s pictures are everywhere, and there are new ones every time they do something! There’s no need for a fanfare when a “new” image is released because they’re released all the time!
So that is why I feel so strongly about this.

 
Still not convinced of a need to change ESA’s Rosetta image release policy? Let me try and illustrate what I mean.
When I’ve finished writing this blog post I’m going to get stuck into the latest b&w raw images from Opportunity, the Mars Exploration Rover currently trundling along up there on the rim of Endeavour crater. I downloaded a couple of dozen of raw images from “Oppy” earlier today, and before I go to bed I will be turning them into colour mosaics and panoramas, which I will then put on FB, Twitter and my blog, where they will be seen by thousands of people, *thousands*. They will then be reTweeted and Shared by many of those people, including some who work ON THE MER MISSION, grateful for my hard work on their behalf, and so thousands *more* people will see them, and be reminded – or learn for the first time – how amazing Oppy’s continuing adventure is.

 
If I had some raw OSIRIS images of Comet 67P images to use, I would be able to do the very same thing with *them* – not trying to “scoop” the camera team, not trying to ruin their careers or anything like that, but to just spread the word. But I have no such images. Draw your own conclusions about the lost Outreach potential that represents.

 
So, where are we? Well, some progress has clearly been made on this issue, but the main problem remains, and it is this: for whatever reason, the scientists in control of the main Rosetta cameras simply do not want to release more images. They apparently don’t see why they should, and don’t care what everyone else thinks. And to repeat what I said in my first blog post – that sucks. But it appears there’s nothing ESA can do about it. The contracts drawn up between ESA and the states behind the Rosetta hardware are bound by spells and witchcraft so strong that to try and rewrite them is forbidden, for fear of the very fabric of Time and Space ripping itself apart.

 
We can only hope that someone is doing something to bring about changes to this situation in the future, and cross our fingers that there are discussions taking place in ESA about making new contracts very different, i.e. requiring PIs etc to be freer with their images. After all, the cameras and instruments, amazing as they are, can’t fly into space on their own, they have to have a ride from ESA, so without ESA the PIs are, to put it politely, stuffed. They would have no data to work with without ESA. So we’ll have to wait and see if things change in the future. As things stand now, on August 6th the TV news presenters won’t say “Scientists supplying images to the European Space Agency, taken with their cameras riding onboard the ESA probe ROSETTA, have allowed ESA to release several new pictures of a comet…” they’ll say “The European Space Agency has taken new images of a comet”. So things have to change in the future, because unless and until the current situation is made clearer, and the PIs and agencies and institutions in question are made to see the error of their ways, this issue is going to remain a thorn in ESA’s side, and even though clearly it’s not the organisation’s fault, people will continue to believe that ESA doesn’t like to share its images with the world.

 
But is that a big deal anyway? I’ve been asked by a few non-astronomy people what all the fuss is about, and why I’m so bothered about this image release issue. And it’s a fair question. It’s probably true to say that the majority of the public don’t give a **** about what ESA or NASA is doing most of the time, and Rosetta’s comet encounter is not even on their radar.They’re too busy with their everyday, hard lives, their families, and their own more “down to Earth” hobbies. Many of them simply have no interest in space exploration, in the same way I have no interest in the ups and downs of celebrity “relationships” or most of sport. Each to their own, eh? Others are openly hostile to the exploration of space, seeing it as a waste of money, perhaps even a criminal waste of money, for all the usual reasons. And at a time when the Middle East and North Africa are basically huge piles of dynamite waiting for someone to toss lit matches on, and when airliners are being shot out of the sky by East European lunatics, really, who cares about whether or not starry-eyed space geeks get to see blurry, grainy images of a comet soon after they’re taken or not?

 
I’m not going to puff out my chest with indignation here and huff and puff and sputter “But… but… it’s the PRINCIPLE of the thing!” because that’s always a naive, lazy argument and wouldn’t persuade anyone. It wouldn’t persuade me. No, really, it comes down to this: if your incredible camera, on an amazing machine, built by remarkable people, is taking stunning images of a fascinating thing, why WOULDN’T you want to share more of those images with the world? It’s ridiculous.
But, as has been pointed out to me, it’s not uncommon either. Raw images taken by the MESSENGER probe studying Mercury are not posted to the web. Nor are Hubble images, or images taken by many other space-probes. Why get so worked up about Rosetta’s images then?

 
Well, just speaking personally and, yes, selfishly here, I don’t feel so narked about the lack of raw images from the aforementioned missions because I’m not as interested in or as excited by their photographic targets as I am about comets. That’s just me. I imagine the dedicated fans of Mercury, the Moon and Venus would love to see the raw images sent back from the missions currently exploring those faraway places but it’s up to them to shout up for them as I am shouting up for comets and Rosetta. But bigger picture – this is a first, and firsts are always special, always exciting. Yes, other probes have encountered other comets in the past, but they were all fly-bys, essentially imaging hit and runs. Rosetta’s mission to 67P is different. This is no one night stand. We are going to be at the comet for a long time, following its growth and evolution, seeing how it changes over time.

 
We should be doing that right now, watching the comet growing larger up ahead, as if standing on the bridge of the USS Enterprise in front of that huge view-screen, seeing blurry features swim into sharp focus, each day the comet nucleus a little larger, a little clearer. And once the navcam images start being released that will happen, yes… but oh, compressed versions of those OSIRIS images would be so much better, so much more detailed, it would be amazing seeing the comet growing larger on those, wouldn’t it? Oh well, it looks like that’s not going to happen.

 
Meanwhile, Rosetta is closing in on the comet, and next Thursday we’ll get to see at least one more OSIRIS image which should show a lot more detail. It should confirm if that… dark…thing… on the outward-facing side of the smaller of the two conjoined bodies (or “on the top of the duck’s head” if you prefer to think of it that way) really is a big crater, as many are speculating. And the next OSIRIS images should also shine more light on the nature of the bright “collar” connecting the two parts of the nucleus. Looking forward to seeing those, of course.

 
…and then will we really see nothing more until Arrival Day, August 6th ? No, surely not!

 
Well, I hope not. That would be a a great shame, but I fear that might be the case as it looks like that’s the deal we’re stuck with. I hope I’m wrong, and that taking account of the interest in their mission the OSIRIS team will be a bit more generous. If they aren’t, well, I genuinely believe that would be a bad thing, and another example of how the drip…drip…drip image release policy, forced on it by others, waving ancient contracts in the air, is damaging to the modern, open, forward-thinking ESA.

 
Ok, I’m done with this now. I’m not going to keep posting one frustrated rant after another about it. My position is clear, and from now on whatever will be, will be. So let’s end on a positive note! Rosetta is now just a couple of weeks away from its arrival at Comet 67P and excitement is building. The Rosetta Outreach team is now busting a gut to raise the profile of the mission even higher, with competitions, cute animations and more – a fantastic effort. Space enthusiasts around the world are counting down the days until The Big Day, and even if the OSIRIS team seems as determined to hold on to its images as tightly as Gollum clutches his Precious ring, from tomorrow ESA will be releasing new navcam images daily, which is brilliant. Great discoveries and sights are just around the corner. Our knowledge of the universe is about to take another leap forward.

 
As the great man said on the bridge of the Enterprise: “Buckle up…!”

A right old comet kerfuffle…

Rosetta_Philae_Artist_Impression_Poster_625x815

NOTE: this is a long post. If you’re in a rush, come back another time. Otherwise, grab a cup of coffee and a chocolate Hob Nob, put your feet up, and prepare to be growled at.

If you have a passion for – or even just a passing interest in – space exploration, you’re probably aware that an unmanned European Space Agency (ESA) space probe, “Rosetta”, is currently closing in on a comet. The comet’s full name is “Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko” but many space enthusiasts are shortening that to “Cherry Gerry”, or “Comet CG” or just plain “67P” (which is what I’ll call it here from now on, ok?) This is one of the most exciting space missions for a long, long time, because not only will the Rosetta probe take high resolution images of the comet’s surface from August, but in November it will set a small lander, “Philae”, down on its nucleus, which will then send back the first ever pictures from the surface of a comet. Obviously this is a seriously giddying prospect, not just for planetary and cometary scientists, who have longed to see a comet’s surface properly for decades, but also for “armchair” space explorers, the countless tens (hundreds?) of thousands of people around the globe who live and breathe space missions, and spend hours looking at the images sent back from across the solar system. So as Rosetta closes in on Comet 67P a lot of people are getting very excited. Big missions like this, when something completely new is seen for the first time, don’t come along very often now.

There are lots of serious science questions for Rosetta to answer once she arrives. What is the comet made of? How much dust is coming off it? How old is it? In which part of the solar system did it form, all those billions of years ago? But let’s be honest, as exciting as this “hard science” will be, really, as the August 6th rendezvous approaches, everyone – professional scientist and “space geek” alike – is wondering the same thing: what will the comet nucleus look like up close? Will it have craters and dusty plains, like those seen on other comets in the past? Will giant boulders litter its surface? Will it have hills, or even mountains, casting stark shadows when the Sun slips behind them? What will we SEE?

Outside of the so-called “astronomical community” there is a lot of public interest in this mission too. It’s fair to say that promoting its missions, and engaging the public with those missions, is something ESA has been rather poor at in the past, but now they’re really doing well. For months now the European Space Agency team responsible for publicising and promoting the Rosetta mission has been doing an absolutely fantastic job, promoting Rosetta with competitions, multiple websites and countless Outreach activities and events, and thanks to their tireless efforts on social media the mission has a very solid presence on Twitter and Facebook. Scientists involved in the mission have been blogging about it too. This all means that Rosetta has probably the highest online presence of any ESA mission to date, a great achievement considering that the ESA Outreach team has had to do all this with a limited budget and a small number of people. They deserve huge congratulations for their efforts.

But money and manpower aside, their greatest problem has inevitably been a lack of actual pictures of the mission’s cometary target, 67P. The comet’s icy nucleus is so small, and has been so far away from the probe, that until this week it has looked like just a few pixels on a black background. A few days ago, with the gap between comet and probe shrinking daily, ESA put out “the latest” images of the comet, and although it looked larger than we had seen it before it was still just a blurry, smudgy… something. Tantalising views, certainly, but 67P was not looking much like a comet, to be honest.

Then a couple of days ago, everything changed.

If you were online during Wednesday you probably felt a strange disturbance in the Force… as if thousands of space exploration enthusiasts suddenly cried out in delight, only to be suddenly silenced a short time later. Why? Because suddenly, out of the blue, apparently published by accident, new images of 67/P appeared online, and they were radically different from anything seen before…

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Memories of a confusing cluster of pixels were instantly banished as we all gazed at the strange object on our screens. Instead of looking like a single body, like a classic asteroid or comet, 67P looked like two bodies stuck together, or a single large body with two very distinct parts. Straight away astronomy journalists and armchair explorers alike were speculating that 67P might be what astronomers call a “contact binary”, which is a fancy way of saying “it’s made of two once separate bits which bumped together and stuck”. Great! Two comets for the price of one!!

But steady on. There are other possibilities. Maybe it’s a single body with a narrow waist, like a peanut, or the pictures are still of such low quality they’re giving totally the wrong impression But “contact binary” seems to be the most popular interpretation of the images so far. As ever, we’ll just have to wait and see…

Looking back, I think it’s fair to say that there was quite a mood of euphoria for a while that day, as those images – still blurry, but waaay better than anything we had seen before – spread across the internet like a brand new video clip of a sleeping kitten cuddling up to a puppy under a Christmas tree. After all the months of just seeing Rosetta’s target as a pixelated “What the hell is THAT??” blob, suddenly it was a very real, very solid object. “Look at that,” I thought, looking at the images on my phone, “67P is a real world…” Rosetta was going to explore and study a real world! Oh, yes, there was much rejoicing throughout the space exploration community -

But not, it seems, within ESA. The images had been released unofficially and prematurely. S0on they had vanished from the CNES webpage, rounded up and put back in their barns, and the sound of the doors slamming firmly shut behind them echoed across Europe. But it was too late. By then the images had been Saved by countless space enthusiasts and were already being pasted into reports on numerous websites. The cat wasn’t just out of the bag, it was halfway down the street and had no intention of coming back…

Of course, ESA’s image cull prompted quite a response too. Twitter, Facebook and forums were soon groaning under the weight of varying opinions and reactions. Some people said “Ok, fair enough, they were released without permission, we should wait for the official release”. But others shook their heads in frustration, and disappointment, and thought gloomily “Here we go again – ESA is going to hold back images again…”

Again? Yes, again. You see, in the past – in stark contrast to NASA, which releases raw images from its Mars rovers and Saturn orbiter “Cassini” in real time, sometimes posting them on websites just hours after they were taken – ESA has been, shall we say, “reluctant” to let the public see more than a handful of images taken by its probes at the time they were taken. This has led to a lot of criticism and even anger. And, cards on the table here, it’s a policy which really, really hacks me off personally.

ESA has always answered that criticism by insisting that it was their policy to not release more images until the scientists working on the missions had had time to study them and do science with them. And ok, that’s fair enough; if you were a scientist who had dedicated years, if not decades of your career to a space mission, the last thing you want is to be “scooped” by non-scientists playing about with your images on their laptops while sat in bed in their pyjamas. How chuffed would YOU be if someone tapping away on their tablet spotted something interesting on one of YOUR photos before YOU’D had a chance to look at it properly..?

But looking at it from the other side, many ask if it’s fair for ESA to horde its images in this way when those images are paid for with public money. European governments fund ESA, and Governments get their money from taxing their citizens, so while a lot of private money goes into them – space exploration is big business across Europe, and many hi-tech companies have invested huge amounts of money in it – every ESA mission is paid for, at least in part, out of money taken from hard working people’s wage packets. Surely the people who pay for the images to be taken have the right to see them – not all of them, but at least a good number of them – when they are taken? At a very fundamental level, how can it be fair for ESA to horde their images on their hard drives when there are thousands and thousands of people desperate to see them – people who paid to have those images taken in the first place?

These aren’t just my arguments, by the way. These points are made so often about ESA missions that they’ve become a bit of a thorn in the space agency’s side and they can’t ignore them anymore. And by yesterday evening one of the Rosetta team had put out a very detailed and honest blog post, again explaining the Rosetta (and general ESA) image release policy. You can read it here ( http://blogs.esa.int/rosetta/2014/07/16/access-to-rosetta-data/  ) but basically it just repeats the familiar arguments about ESA scientists needing time to study the images before they are released, and ends by saying, in as many words, “Hey, don’t blame us; this way of doing things was agreed by the countries who contribute money to ESA. It’s just the way things are…”

Yeah, well, sorry to be rude, but “the way things are” sucks. It needs to change. Because if ESA drip feed the public Rosetta images after spending all these months – and a lot of money – building up public excitement and expectation through all that brilliant Outreach work, they’re not just going to look selfish, but they’re going to risk losing a lot of the goodwill they’ve built up too.

Yesterday ESA officially released “the latest” images of 67P, which were put into an animation to show it rotating…

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(Rotating view of comet 67P/C-G on 14 July 2014.
Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA)

…and although they show only a little more detail than the “bootleg” images released the day before – even though some people claim to have brought out surface detail in the photographs using image processing software, the comet and probe are still so far apart that actual surface features can’t be resolved yet – in a way that doesn’t matter. What matters most at the moment is that the comet’s bizarre shape has been revealed. Look at the images yourself and you’ll appreciate why it has been compared by many people to a “Rubber Duckie” (or just plain old “Rubber Duck” as we call them here in the UK, without that “Duckie” nonsense! :-) ) , and that rather irreverent nickname appears to be popular amongst science writers, too.

So, the excitement is definitely building. From now on every new set of images will show more and more detail, and it won’t be long before the Rosetta scientists will have good enough images to enable them to begin charting and naming features like craters, mountains and valley’s on the comet’s surface. But it seems that we will have to wait for those images too. Everything coming out of ESA in the wake of “Rubber Duckie Gate” suggests that ESA is sticking to its guns and is only going to release images of 67P in spurts.

It may be a week until we see any more Rosetta images, which is quite ridiculous in my opinion. I actually feel quite mad thinking about that.

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But why do I feel so strongly about this? After all, people like me have no God given right to see the images taken by Rosetta or other space probes. Well, that’s true, but as one of those aforementioned “armchair explorers” – and also a very active “Outreach Educator”, who regularly gives illustrated talks on space and astronomy to public groups – I think it’s only fair I be allowed to see them, and use them.

“Yes, Stu,” I hear some of you sighing, “but WHY???”

Well, whilst I obviously recognise the value and importance of the hard science returned by space probes and missions – you know, the squiggly-lined graphs, Powerpoint charts and bizarre, Rorschach test-like splodges of chemical composition and spectroscopy readings – to be perfectly honest my passion is for images, or “pretty pictures” as they’re often dismissed as. I think this is because of my background as an amateur astronomer, children’s astronomy writer and Outreach worker. I enjoy standing in a muddy or frosty field on a dark night and actually looking up at the stars, bathing in the light of the Milky Way as it arches overhead. I love staring into the eyepiece of my small but trusty 4.5” reflecting telescope and seeing Saturn’s rings, the Moon’s craters and Jupiter’s four largest moons for myself. I delight in standing in front of a room full of people, young or old, and showing them pictures of Valles Marineris, the icy landscape of Titan or the Earth rising above the charcoal-black limb of the Moon. I’m a visual person, guilty as charged. I’m sure others go all weak at the knees when they see a graph or a chart but for me a picture is worth a million graphs or charts, never mind a thousand words.

And I’m not alone feeling that way. There are millions of people just like me “out here”, and more ‘space enthusiasts’ are taking part in the exploration of space from their school desks, office chairs or bedrooms every week, via the internet.

Which is why I have such a problem with ESA’s image release policy. It’s a dinosaur policy, drafted in the pre-internet world, when, to be honest, it didn’t matter if images were released promptly or not because the vast majority of the general public really didn’t give a monkey’s about what the wild-haired space boffins holed up in their labs got up to. There was hardly any science on TV, or in the newspapers or magazines, or at least nowhere near as much as we enjoy now. In those days probably only a few tens of thousands people around the world waited breathlessly to see the Voyager images of Jupiter, or the Viking images of Mars. In many ways it was a science-starved world.

Well, we don’t live in that world any more, despite what some people involved with ESA apparently think. Today huge numbers of the public voraciously devour science, and want to participate in the great adventures taking place out there”. Unable to physically go along for the ride, they are happy instead to follow the missions online, regularly checking their websites, blogs, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. Each FB post, each Tweet, each link clicked on makes them feel that little bit more connected to those missions, and happy to support future (expensive) missions too.

Now let me state here very clearly, so no-one accuses me of having anything personal against ESA, that I am very proud of the European space program and all it has achieved. I’ve grown up with the successes of Hubble, Huygens, Mars Express, Giotto and other ESA missions. They’re all fantastic achievements, and have given space science just as much as NASA’s possibly more-famous flagship missions such as Voyager and the MERs. But my loyalty to ESA is not blind. I firmly believe ESA has to have a rethink here, and get a real grip on Outreach in the 21st century. It really, really needs to do better.

I’ve already acknowledged that ESA has nowhere near the Outreach resources NASA does, and I’m not suggesting it tries to catch up. What I am suggesting is that they do better with what they have, and at least try to make sure people “out here” are more involved in their space missions and are allowed to see the results of the programs they have paid for. To put it plainly, ESA needs to become more generous with its images, because – in my opinion – at the moment, by withholding images like it does, it comes across as cold and detached from the very people who fund and support it.

ESA simply has to become more aware of the importance and value of releasing images into the public domain as quickly, and as freely, as possible. Today ESA – like NASA – has countless websites, and those websites frequently display images taken by space-probes during encounters and fly-bys etc, and when they appear they’re always gorgeous and brilliant and right-click saveable. But compared to NASA, ESA seems to drip feed the public, and the media, its images, almost as if it begrudges sharing them sometimes.

Actually, if you dig a little deeper it becomes clear that the problem seems to lie not with the Agency itself, but with some of the scientists in charge of the instruments involved or the missions themselves. They’re still living in the Dark Ages; they just don’t “get” that releasing their images into the wild is A Good Thing. Each image has to be prised from their hands, which is not good, not good at all.

Again, I have to stress that I have no bad will towards ESA. Far from it; I know from the email correspondence I have enjoyed with many ESA scientists in the past, and from my daily interactions with them now on both Facebook and Twitter, that they are hard working, dedicated and enthusiastic people who love sharing their successes with the wider world. I’m sure many of the Rosetta team would love to see more of its images being enjoyed “out here” by members of the public. But there is a serious problem somewhere within ESA that is letting them down, and needs addressing. And that problem seems to me to be that some of the people in charge of ESA missions don’t “get it” that space science isn’t just for space scientists any more, it’s fascinating to a growing number of ordinary people too, and these are the same people who fund ESA’s ambitious and successful – and unsuccessful – missions through their taxes.

I honestly think Rosetta’s historic comet rendezvous demands changes in ESA’s image release policy.

And come on, it has to change, because the world has changed. I’m not sure if the people guarding the gates of the Rosetta image vaults even know this, but Out Here there is now an energetic and thriving community of space enthusiasts who have amazing image manipulation talents and skills, who will happily spend hours and hours taking the raw images and, by enhancing them, adding colour, stitching them together and generally tweaking them, turn them into quite amazing celestial portraits.

And the key word there is “raw”. The images we want to see are the untouched ones, the grainy, blurry, speckly JPEG artefact-riddled images returned by space probes which the mission scientists then calibrate and clean up and turn into useful, hard data, data they then work with to write their papers and advance their careers. I seriously question the ESA concerns that its scientists can be “scooped” by enthusiasts working on such raw images because apparently NASA doesn’t have any problems with this. In fact, NASA openly encourages people to become involved in its missions by posting raw images taken by its Mars rovers and Saturn-orbiting CASSINI probe online as soon as they can. NASA is happy, for the most part, for people sitting in their pyjamas or on trains to take the raw images and use them to create new and beautiful works of art for everyone to enjoy.

ESA needs to embrace this philosophy too, if it is to connect better with the public and ensure their support for its missions continue, especially in this difficult time of austerity. Even I sometimes find it very hard to justify the money spent on space exploration when so many people don’t have enough to eat, or a roof over their head. The answer to such criticism is to ask people to consider The Bigger Picture, to explain to them that space exploration enriches us all and adds to our knowledge. Proving that is hard, very hard, but showing a jaw-droppingly gorgeous picture of an achingly-blue martian sunset, or Earth glinting like a sapphire beneath Saturn’s glowing rings, or an asteroid tumbling through the darkness of space can help enormously. People don’t “get” scientific diagrams. I’ve yet to hear the audience at one of my talks let out an appreciative sigh when shown a Powerpoint slide of a spiky graph showing the changing seasonal rate of methane production on Mars. But put up an image of Earth taken from space, glowing, burning bright blue against the blackness of the void like a fragile Christmas tree bauble and the response is amazing.

People like pictures. They can appreciate pictures. That’s why pictures are a space agency’s best asset. To take them and not make the most of them you possibly can is foolish.

As a space enthusiast and member of that public I don’t ask for much. I don’t want to sit in on planning or funding or engineering meetings, or be sent thousand page reports or technical papers, or vote on spending and funding. I trust people at ESA to handle those things. But I want to see at least a good number of the pictures I’ve contributed to financially soon after they’ve been taken, instead of just gnawing on a few scraps thrown from the top table, long after they’ve gone cold. Personally I don’t think that’s unreasonable, is it?

I can’t help thinking – melodramatically, I know – that by keeping back images like it does, ESA’s behaving like a photographer that was paid – very well – in advance for photographing a friend’s wedding, then used that money to buy the most expensive camera he could find and spent hours taking pictures, only to hand over a handful of prints instead of the full album he promised, before walking away with the camera too…

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It might sound selfish, me just wanting to see a picture of my favourite planet, or a comet, or whatever, but there’s a bigger picture here. It’s not just about me, it’s not even about us, the current space enthusiasts – it’s about the next “us”. Every time I give a talk in a school I try fan the flames of the kids’ interest in the hope that I’ll inspire one of them to go grab a book off a shelf and learn a bit more after I’ve gone. I’ve been giving school talks for (oh my god!!!) almost 30 years now, must have talked to many thousands of kids in that time, and hopefully some of them have gone on to study and work in science, maybe even space exploration, I don’t know. But it’s such a visual topic, space exploration, that it’s absolutely essential to have the latest pics to show the kids, or they won’t believe that space exploration is going on NOW, and wasn’t all finished in the days of Apollo, as they’re taught in history, I can’t stress that enough.

Steve Squyres, the man behind the fantastically successful Mars rovers, has said that he was inspired to enter a career as a space scientist by those famous Viking images of Mars. The same thing happened to me, only in my case the images were in a paint-stained copy of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC tossed into a corner of my art class and forgotten about until an inquisitive 16yr old found it and… um… sneaked it home to look at it in private.

I’ve still got it, over there on the “Mars” shelf of my bookcase. I have kept it all this time, even though it’s battered and faded now, because pictures are important. They speak to us. An amazing image – of anything, a crying child, a beautiful sunset, a comet seen by a passing space-probe – can reach out of our computer and TV screens, and up off our newspaper and magazine pages, and bury itself into our brains and hearts and never leave. ESA has to realise that the images it takes are treasures to be shared with everyone, as quickly and as fully as possible, not just because – despite what they think – they have an obligation to let the people who paid for those images to be taken see them, but because they have a chance to inspire and educate people with them too. I’m seriously not sure that the Outreach potential of ESA’s images is fully appreciated yet. Rosetta’s historic comet encounter should – has to be – the event which triggers changes.

I know that the situation within ESA regarding image release is much more complicated than it is in NASA. As I said earlier, ESA mission scientists are not obliged to share their data in the same way, and some prefer to withhold it from the public and the media until it has been analysed to within an inch of its life. The people behind individual instruments can demand data release delays too. But this attitude has to change, and the scientists and researchers involved in missions need to be made aware of how important a change to a more generous image release policy is.

Unfortunately I don’t think they’re going to make that change willingly; I think they’re going to have to be made to change.

How we get them to change, though, I don’t know. Echoing my own thoughts and concerns, a German astronomy enthusiasts have sent an open letter to ESA calling for a more generous Rosetta image release policy during the encounter with 67P – which is very appropriate seeing as many of the scientists involved in taking, and releasing, Rosetta images are German – but their appeal seems to have been shrugged off. So what else can we do? Well, on our Facebook pages and in our Tweets we can keep making the case for more images to be shared. We can keep this subject alive in our blog posts and forum discussions, too. Other than that, I don’t know.

One word sums it up, really: share. ESA needs to share what it does with the world better; if you put more images out more quickly, you can then just sit back and bask in the glow as the fruits of ESA’s labours are enjoyed, and celebrated, all around the globe. It’s not, um, rocket science.

ESA is a space agency to be proud of, and I am, but to be honest sometimes I don’t feel a part of it. Sometimes I feel like I’m not wanted by ESA. As much as I admire ESA’s programs, I actually feel more a part of NASA’s programs. I would really, really like that to change, and I think that a change to ESA’s antiquated image release policy would go a long way towards making a lot of people like me feel more a part of ESA. Just by being a bit more approachable and a bit more open to sharing, ESA could make many people like me even more proud of our space agency than we already are.

Throughout history comets have been seen as omens of evil. Wars, plagues and disasters have all been blamed on bright comets after they appeared in the sky, and even today many people believe comets are heralds of change and upheaval. Comet 67P will undoubtedly bring about great change and upheaval in the world of astronomy when Rosetta’s cameras and instruments have completed their studies, leaving us with a new understanding of the nature of these enigmatic icy bodies.

Let’s hope that 67P brings about change within ESA itself, too.

happycomputerusers

Another fine display…

Typical. Just typical. You wait ages for a good display of noctilucent clouds, then two come along at once – well, a couple of days apart anyway.

In my last post I described the fantastic NLC display that kicked off on Friday night and lasted through to Saturday morning. I thought at the time that would be it for a while, but to my surprise and delight another display lit up the sky last night. It wasn’t as vivid or dramatic as the other one, but it was very pretty and was a striking sight in the sky above the fells to the north of Kendal.

Having been alerted to the start of the display by other NLC observers’ posts on Twitter and Facebook, I went up to Kendal Castle at just after eleven, and the display was already well underway then, as a large, hazy, noticeably bright patch above the NE horizon…

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As time passed the display brightened and spread out, until it resembled a glorious silvery-blue rainbow above the fells. Then, over time, that rainbow faded, split in two and fell away, leaving just a background glow.

Here are the best of my photos. Hope you like them!

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The Great NLC Outburst of July 11/12 2014

Astronomy can be a very, very frustrating hobby, for many reasons. It can be frustrating because of the difficulty involved in seeing things – how come all the best stuff happens at stupid o’clock in the morning?  It can be frustrating financially – why is everything so expensive? And it can be frustrating technically – why won’t this ***** **** ***** telescope align???? But more than anything else, it can be frustrating because of the weather. We are totally and completely at its mercy. We can look forward to an event – a meteor shower, an eclipse, a transit, something like that – for months, sometimes years, sometimes even decades, as was the case with Halley’s Comet for many, and then, at the crucial time we miss it, simply because the evil, spiteful atmosphere of our beautiful, green, lush planet chooses that precise time to put a billow of clouds, or even just a single ******* of a cloud, between us and whatever it is we want to watch. Then all we can do is stand there, staring up at the cloudy sky, knowing something… something amazing, something beautiful, some special… is happening behind the blanket of bleakness, unable to see it. It can be soul-crushing, it really can.

In Ye Olde Days before the internet that would have been it. The torture would have ended with a deep, weary sigh and a long drive or walk back home, to slump on the sofa with a cuppa. But now… oh, now our technology prolongs and enhances the torture. Standing there, beneath a cloudy sky, we can go online with our phones and read breathless reports on Facebook of the event we’re missing. We can see other people’s beautiful pictures of the amazing event we’re missing, and read their “OMG! It’s incredible!” Tweets. That’s beyond cruel. It’s happened to me so many times now, I’ve lost count, and I’ll admit that more than once I’ve stood in the shadow of the ruins of Kendal Castle, staring up at a murky orange sky, missing a meteor shower, or a planetary conjunction, or comet, and vehemently given it the finger and sworn at it. Yes, I’ve actually hurled insults at the sky. Bad ones, too. Silly? Maybe, but it made me feel better, and the alternative was sinking to my knees, balling my hands into fists and shouting “**** YOUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU!!!” at the heavens like Kirk screaming “Khaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaannnnnnnn!!” into his communicator, and doing that would be ridiculous.

A second time…

Yes, the Goddess of astronomy can be cruel. She can promise you a sight of such wonder and beauty that you will get up at you’re-having-a-laugh-o’clock, climb a hill and stand alone in temperatures which would have a penguin reaching for a hot water bottle only to cover the sky with cloud, or just push a single cloud into the worst possible place for it to be. I love her, I really do, but sometimes, oh sometimes she reaches into your chest, wraps her slender, starry fingers around your heart and drags it out, laughing as she holds it up in front of your face…

But I’ve come to realise, over the years, that every time she does that – every time an eclipse or a meteor shower or a comet is cruelly hidden from me – she will, one day, make it up to me and show me something… magical. It’s not Karma, it’s not something supernatural, or spooky. It’s just fair. The astronomy Goddess is cruel, true, but she is fair, and for every dozen dreams she crushes she will give you something special in return. You just have to be patient.

And really, patience is the key to enjoying astronomy, I’ve always thought. As I always tell people during my Outreach talks, it takes time to learn the sky, there are no shortcuts. It takes time to learn how to find things in binoculars, or set up your telescope, or master astrophotography with your camera. It takes time to get to know how the sky works, what the hobby can give you. If you rush, if you get impatient, it won’t help. You will know only disappointment and anger. But if you are prepared to roll with the punches, to suffer disappointments, to be tricked and laughed at by the night sky and the wonders painted on it by Nature then you will, on a few precious nights during your lifetime, be allowed to see something… incredible. Something which will make up for all the failures and disappointments. Something which will make you fall on love with the sky, and astronomy, all over again.

And on Friday night it was my turn to enjoy one of those gifts.

As regular readers will know, it is “noctilucent cloud season” here in the northern hemisphere at the moment. Noctilucent clouds – or “NLC” for short – are very high clouds which we only see in the summer months, glowing a beautiful silvery-blue colour, low in the northern sky around midnight. They can’t be predicted, and while some displays can become stunningly bright most are much more modest. Watching them takes patience, determination, and the ability to function on a ridiculously small amount of sleep. Every summer observers like myself long for clear nights so we can head to our favourite spot and basically stake out the northern sky, hoping for NLC to appear. When they do we take our pictures (which we now can post on Twitter and Facebook for other observers to enjoy, or hate, depending on their own weather situation) and enjoy the show for as long as we can. But usually they don’t appear, and then we head home, muttering and mumbling, frustrated by the sky and the cruel nature of NLCs again.

But the worst nights of all are the ones when a big display of NLC kicks off, and its seems like everyone else in the country is seeing and enjoying it, but local cloud means you see absolutely nothing. That’s just… awful, it really is. All we can do is look at the glorious pictures being taken elsewhere and swear at them and the people who took them, cursing the sky and our own bad luck. And that’s happened to me a couple of times this NLC season, most recently last week when a ginormous migraine-inducingly bright NLC display was observed from to the north and the east of me, but I missed it because of a stubborn bank of low cloud stuck to the sky above my northern horizon with superglue, so I could only see a little of the display peeking out from around it…

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I hated that, but, at the same time, that little voice in my head was telling me “Be patient, your time will come…”

And it did, on Friday night.

After several beautifully clear – and, of course, totally NLC-free – nights in a row, I was pretty frazzled by Friday night, but with yet another clear sky forecast I knew I had to keep trying, to keep dragging myself up that hill to the castle, there was just no alternative, so I grabbed a nap between half ten and half eleven, just to try and recharge my batteries a little, just enough to get me back up the hill again and try again. By quarter to midnight I was on my way, camera bag and tripod bag slung over my shoulder as I plodded my way up the hill to Kendal Castle. As I went, occasional glances to the north suggested a subtle brightening of the sky, but there was a Full Moon that night, lighting up all different levels of “normal” cloud, so I didn’t get my hopes up. However, once I was at the top of the hill, looking north I had a really strong feeling that, well… well, this will sound odd, but the sky above the fells in that direction just didn’t look “right”. It was glowing, subtly, and I felt my NLCsense tingle as I aimed my camera at the glow and prepared to take a test exposure. Unwilling to believe my eyes, I knew that iIf NLC were there, they would show up on the photo.

<Click> wait… look at screen…

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Oh yes… look at that… looked a lot like NLC… I put word out on Twitter that I was maybe seeing something, and let Stella know too, then set-up properly, arranging everything in its right place so I wouldn’t have to ratch for things if a proper display kicked off.  Standing there after midnight, as the sky darkened, I became aware of a bright “patch” low in the NE. Nothing much to the naked eye, but maybe a long exposure photo would show something interesting..?

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Oh look at that…

Game on. :-)

For the next half hour the NLC grew brighter and expanded to the sides, too, and it soon became clear that some major activity was brewing. Now, that wasn’t a cue for me to jump up in the air, pump my fist and shout “Yes!!!! About time!!!” because I’ve been burned before. “Major activity brewing” can go one of two ways. It can either explode in a display of colour and structure, painting the northern sky with billows of impossibly beautiful blue for hours on end, or it can just go “You know what? I can’t be bothered tonight…” and fade away to nothing, leaving the sky as blank as it was before. So as I stood there taking my photos I tried not to get too excited.  But by half past midnight the lower portion of that “patch” in the NE was clearly evolving into something very interesting indeed, and my photos showed it developing into a strange but beautiful kind of NLC “plume”…

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And that soon became this…

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Still trying not to let my hopes run away with me I took a close up of it, and it looked VERY interesting. I’ve enhanced that picture to bring out some of the subtle details in the feature…

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And with even more enhancement…

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Beautiful, don’t you think? By now I was starting to allow myself to believe that maybe, just maybe, something special was brewing up beyond the horizon and it was headed my way, but it’s never wise to give in to such optimism because the universe is listening and likes nothing better than pulling that run away from under you, so I just kept taking pics, and updating people on Twitter and Facebook, biding my time…

…and, true to form, by one o’clock the plume started to collapse. Like a solar prominence falling back on itself, its spine broke and it started to bow down in the middle. And fade in brightness, too…

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Was that it? I didn’t know. But it did feel rather like that scene near the end of “Close Encounters” where the little UFOs have just buzzed the top secret landing site and whooshed up into the sky, raising everyone’s hopes, only for everything to fall silent again. I started to wonder if the show was over. If it was, well, ok, I’d got some fairly nice photos, and it had been worth going out for…

By quarter past one it looked like it was all over. The NLC activity had fallen right back down to the point where what little remained was barely scraping the tops of the fells, and to make matters worse some hideous low cloud had boiled in from the south, smothering my sky…

fading and cloud2s

It was that fateful Decision Time. On Twitter and Facebook, many people were quickly throwing in the towel, announcing they were going to (or BACK to) bed because the show was over. Others, clearly torn between staying out and retreating to their beds hummed and haahd. Me? I knew that going back now could be a big mistake; I’ve been watching NLC displays for *cough* years now (oh, alright, almost 35 years now, and ALL the best NLC displays I have ever seen started reasonably well and then faded, only to flare up again and become something spectacular. So with hardly a star visible in the sky, and with just the merest trace of NLC lingering above the hills, I settled back and made myself comfortable, putting on my little pocket radio (top tip: if you’re observing alone ALWAYS take a little radio with you for company, cos if you don’t, with nothing else to occupy, entertain or distract you  during a lull, that little voice in your head will whisper “It’s finished now, it’s over… you’re tired, and cold… go home… go home… you won’t miss anything…” With a radio on you won’t notice time passing and you’ll find it much easier to stick it out) and catching up on my FB and Twitter messages.

Slowly the sky cleared of cloud, leaving an enormous fat and bright Full Moon blazing behind me, and as the town hall clock chimed “2am” from the streets below me I looked the NE again and saw this…

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The NLC were back. And getting brighter. Quickly.

By ten past two, I was seeing this in the NE… that feature was developing, evolving, changing onto something very promising indeed…

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It looked, to my sleep-deprived eyes anyway, like a bird of some kind, maybe a turkey, or a cockrel, and as the minutes passed it began to shine even brighter. I was joined briefly by someone who had just finished work and was walking over the hill as a shortcut home and he was fascinated by what he was seeing above the hills. He was even more fascinated when I explained what they were, and showed him the view of “The Cockrel” (as I had by then decided to call it) on my camera screen…

cockrel best s

I know, look at that… beautiful! But over to its left the NLC were really starting to waken up too…

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…and that was when I knew that Something Big Was Brewing. You don’t get a display that big and bright only to have it fade and break apart. It was going to be a good night, perhaps a very good night for NLC watchers – well, those who had stayed up anyway – and it was time to get serious. I sent Stella a message alerting her to the strength of the display, put the word out again on Twitter and Facebook, and packed up my things. I know what you’re all thinking – “Packed up?!?? You went home????” Of course I didn’t go home! What do you take me for! No. With a major NLC display brewing up I knew it was time to relocate. Where to? Well, if you were wanting to take kick ass photos of a huge NLC display, where would YOU go when you had a great big beautiful ruined castle behind you..?

It was only a short walk to the castle ruins, and before heading into the ruins, to take pics of them silhouetted against the NLC, I paused at the entrance to what’s left of the castle to take a few photos of the display. By this time it was simply gorgeous…

big display brewing s

…and enhancing that photo reveals just how much activity there was going on at this point…

big display brewing enh s

By now the display was really evolving into something special, and every photo I took seemed to look better than the previous one. I took one after another after another, each one subtly different to the others, which is a joyful experience, it really is. I think this is my best one from that period, taken around quarter past two, twenty past two…

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That’s the feature I had previously christened “The Cockrel”, which by now looked nothing like a cockrel any more, there was just too much going on in and around it. It actually looked like something – a head? – was pressing through the blanket of NLC… I clicked and clicked and clicked, and took this (I think!) breathtaking image of the NLC just before I turned my back on it and headed into the ruins…

 

best outside castle before going into ruins s

Well, that was the plan anyway, but suddenly I became aware that I had company – Stella had come up the hill to join me and watch the show with me, so I delayed heading into the ruins to take some “NLC selfies” of us…

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FINALLY it was time to get the photos I’ve longed to take for a decade – the castle silhouetted against a brilliant display of NLC! Just inside the curve of the ruins I took this panorama…

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..and then I went right to the far end of the ruins and started taking pictures. Ahead of me, the view was just sublime, with the main portion of the ruins standing out against the bright electric blue NKLC display which was by now filling a good half of the sky. I found just the right position, and started clicking, almost breathless with excitement; I’d dreamed of taking these pictures ever since I moved down here, but had been thwarted ten years running. Now everything was in place, would they live up to my expectations? What do you think…

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And that was when I took the time to just step away from the camera, and Look. This is something I feel quite strongly about, and always tell fellow astronomers to do – if something amazing is going on “up there” yes, take lots of photos, but for a while, even just a few minutes, walk away from the camera, a good distance away, and just Look At It. Drink in the view, savour it, roll it around your eyes, heart and soul like a fine wine. Look around you, take it all in, fix it in your brain so that when it ends you won’t just have a memory card full of images but a genuine memory of it yourself, too. So that’s what I did. I walked away from the camera and just stared at the sky, the whole sky, sweeping my gaze around it. Behind me, the Full Moon was a big, fat, bloated golden silver ball, dropping towards a few clouds that had gathered above the horizon. High above me the sky was a delicious delicate dark blue, studded with silver stars. And to the north, the sky was ablaze, lit by countless tendrils and swirls and billows and whorls of with cold, electric blue light. It was as if a sorcerous forest fire was raging silently to the north, perhaps the result of furious spell-casting by two duelling warlocks or witches…

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By now it was 3am, and to the east the sky was just starting to brighten with the approach of dawn, so heading back to the entrance to the castle, where Stella was waiting patiently (you can just make her out on that image above, sitting on the skyline silhouetted against the NLC), I took the chance to take some unashamedly cheesy pictures of the two of us together while I could…

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With those in the bag and the display still seemingly getting brighter, and more structured, I decided to go for some killer images, ones which would really show what it was like to stand there, at 3am on that Saturday morning, watching the sky burning sapphire blue…

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By half past three the NLC were so bright they were screaming out for some silhouette photos to be taken, and I was happy to oblige…

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I think out of all the images I’ve made of that display, this is one of my very favourites…

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By quarter to four the eastern sky was really brightening, and the air was thick with dew, so heavy that I was having to clean my misted up lenses after every grabbed picture, and although the NLC display was still going strong its subtle light was no match for the stronger light of the approaching dawn, and it began to fade. I knew that the show was almost over, but there were still photos to be taken…

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dawn approaches s

It was then that we both noticed something coming into view above the NE horizon, a spark of silvery-gold light…

NLC Venus 0400s

Can you see it? Just above the horizon, bottom right, beneath the tattered veil of the fading NLC… that’s Venus. Yes, the Morning Star had come to wish the great NLC display farewell…

Venus 0400s

After that unexpected treat, and with the NLC faded almost from sight, we knew there was nothing else to do and headed home. Of course, any sane person would have collapsed into bed right away after such a long nocturnal haul, but clearly I’m not, so I spent another hour and a half working on my images and getting some of them “out there” online before I surrendered to sleep deprivation and allowed my head to hit a pillow. But it was worth it; I think the pictures I took that morning are some of the best I’ve ever taken, and I may never get another chance to take them, so no regrets about feeling absolutely knackered now. I’d rather be exhausted and happy, with a memory card ( and a head ) full of lovely images, than be one of those people who gave up on the display early and are now kicking themselves…

Looking back now it seems ages ago, but it’s just a day, a DAY since I stood on the castle hilltop bathing my face in the ethereal glow of the best noctilucent cloud display I have ever seen. Everything came together perfectly – I was in exactly the right place at the right time, the weather was just about perfect, all my equipment worked without a hitch, and I got all the photos I wanted on the night, and the ones I have been dreaming of taking for a decade, too.

But before I walked off the hill – and, I think, much to Stella’s amusement – I stopped, looked up at the brightening sky, and said, quietly, “Thank you”. It was only fair. I’d been given a wonderful gift, and I was brought up by mum to say thank you whenever I received one of those. No-one else would have heard it, of course, but I’m sure I heard, whispered on the wind, a soft “You’re welcome…”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how amateur astronomy works. As I said, way back at the beginning of this post, it’s all about patience and rolling with the punches, because trust me you will get punched in this hobby. When people start off in astronomy it promises to be an easy ride. After all, reading the big glossy astronomy book you bought, or took out of the library, with its beautiful pictures and star charts, you can’t help thinking “How hard can it be to go stand in a field and look up at the sky and see amazing stuff?” Easy peasy, right? What could possibly go wrong? Ah, what they don’t tell you is that life as an amateur astronomer can be so frustrating it can leave you on the brink of tears. You will learn to hate the weather, to see it as a loathed enemy, your mortal enemy, because it will stop you from seeing the meteor shower you read about in “Astronomy Now” magazine, and cheat you of the amazing sight of Saturn emerging from behind the Moon’s limb, as you heard about on “The Sky At Night”, and it WILL hide from your view the shadow-casting fireballs and the beautiful, naked eye comets with the glorious tails that everyone else is raving about on Twitter. No-one tells you that when you’re starting out in the hobby. But it’s true. Being an amateur astronomer isn’t easy at all. The universe will drop you and scratch at you so many times you have to be made of diamond to do it.

But you have to soak up the punches, and push on through the disappointments and frustrations because every now and then the universe will reward you with a night – or even just a fleeting moment – of such startling beauty that your head will spin and your heart will leap and you will fall in love with the night sky all over again.

I had one of those nights on Friday night. There will be another but I’ve no idea when – maybe it will be tonight, with another sky-spanning display of NLC… or it won’t come until next year, when I see a newly discovered naked eye comet painted on the sky above my beloved castle. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Until then, on the cloudy nights I’ll think back to the night when I stood in the ruins of a castle and watched the sky burn blue.

The NLC appear – at last!

Finally, FINALLY a good display of NLC – “noctilucent clouds” – was visible from my part of the world (Cumbria, UK… big clue in the name of the blog, up there at the top..!) last night. And it was an absolute beauty.

Regular readers will know that I have been getting rather frustrated (polite way of saying SERIOUSLY ******* HACKED OFF!!!!) with this year’s NLC season. There have been a couple of displays, but these occurred when the weather here in Kendal was uncooperative, and the only clouds I saw were the low, black grey water droplet kind. On Wednesday night I went up to the castle again, lured up there again by a clear late evening sky, but by the time I headed home at 2am I hadn’t seen even a wisp of NLC. Very annoying.

Last night, I was so disheartened by recent wild goose/NLC chases I had decided to not even think about going out NLC-hunting unless and until someone else, somewhere, reported a positive sighting online, on Twitter or Facebook, and settled down to watch the England v Uruguay World Cup match resolving to stick to that decision. But when we lost the match I was so disappointed that I knew I needed to get out into the night, even if I saw nothing, so at 11.30 I packed up my gear and headed out into the almost-midnight Summer twilight. Crossing the road I glanced left, looking north as I always do – and stopped in my tracks. There were patches of light blue-grey up there which looked… well, they just looked wrong. Or rather, right. When you’ve been an NLC hunter as long as I have you start to get a “feel” for the kind of evening which hosts a display, and as I headed across the street to the park last night my NLC spidey sense was definitely tingling, and when I reached the park and looked north again and saw what I knew for a FACT were large areas of NLC, my spirits lifted. Finally, FINALLY, a good display on a clear night!

I rang Stella as I all but jogged up the hill to the castle, letting her know a display was brewing so she could join me later, all the while casting excited but fearful glances at the northern sky, which was looking decidedly curdled by now. By the time I reached the castle, there was no doubt that Something Big was brewing, so I put the word out on Twitter and Facebook, alerting other observers, and then settled down to organising my own observing session.

As I set up my camera and tripod, I could see signs of NLC stretching across the whole of the northern sky, from the NW to the NE, and fired off some test shots as soon as I could… Here’s what the display looked like around ten to midnight…

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And here’s what it looked like around half an hour later, with the sky a little darker…

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By the time Stella joined me I had already taken several dozen photos, but I love this one of her looking up at the display as it developed…

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It was annoying – but inevitable – that the ONLY CLOUD IN THE WHOLE SKY was smack bang in the middle of the NLC display, covering it…

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Enhance that and you can see the full extent of the display…

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Around 1am it looked like the display was fading, falling back towards the northern horizon…

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…but I’ve been observing NLC a long time, and I know that such a fading isn’t necessarily The End. It might mark the end of Part 1 of the display, the late night/midnight part, but there’s always a chance that the display will rear up again and roar again before dawn, so at this point I just put a cover over my camera – a woolly hat if you must know! – to prevent dew, and went fir a sit down, catching up on how my fellow NLC watchers were doing by checking out Twitter and Facebook. It was clear from their breathless posts and gorgeous images that the display I was watching was being seen and enjoyed all across the UK, and watchers in Scotland were seeing a particularly good show. This was the first big “Social Media” display I’ve seen, and it was fascinating to follow the reports as they came in, as seasoned observers quietly and calmly went about recording and photographing it, and newbies and First Timers jumped about online like puppies, giddy with the excitement of it all.

And, as I had hoped – and as others online had predicted – around 2am the display began to come to life again, as a patch of NLC began to brighten and grow low in the NNW…

reappears

Sensing the display’s second act was about to begin I grabbed my gear and headed into the ruins of the castle itself, intent on taking some pictures with those ruins silhouetted against the display. And soon I was taking them, as the display grew larger and brighter again, filling the northern sky with fresh wirls, curls and streamers of noctilucent cloud…

pano5b

Soon the display was back in full swing, so I just took picture after picture after picture, swapping position and lenses every few minutes, getting as many pictures as possible, realising that with Cumbrian weather being what it is, this might be the first and last great display of the season. Here are the best pics I took, in no particular order, ok?

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waves

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castle befpre dawn

By 3am the sky was starting to brighten with the approach of dawn, but the display was still visible…

dawn approaches b

Eventually I started to lose the display, and here are the last images I took…

last look

Back home again at around 03.30 I knew I should go straight to bed, but I was so desperate to see how my photos had turned out that it was almost half past four before my head hit the pillow!

So… finally, FINALLY a display worthy of the name. It took a while to happen, but last night was brilliant, well worth the wait. The forecast is for a clear sky again tonight, so fingers crossed for Round 2..!

No NLC yet, but…

…there are a couple of (hopefully!) clear nights coming up over the next week, so fingers crossed. Actually, to be honest, I have a bad feeling about this year’s NLC Season. I think we’re heading for another 2012. That year, you might remember, there were some decent displays, but here in Cumbria we missed all of them because of our crap weather. Last year, amazingly, the best displays occurred when the Cumbrian cloud cleared, allowing us great views. But so far in 2014 clear nights have been NLC No Show nights, and displays have happened when it has been cloudy in Cumbria… I might be wrong, I might just be having a Pessimistic Astronomer episode, but… well… just saying… I have a “feeling” about this year.

So, since the 2014 Season began at the start of the month, lured up there by beautiful clear skies, I’ve spent hours up at the castle, waiting for something to kick off, but I haven’t seen a hint of NLC. Not a whisper. Which is very disappointing, obviously, but hey, that’s something British – and especially Cumbrian – astronomers are used to. So what we do is make the best of things, and enjoy what’s up there instead, and this past week I’ve been able to take some *fantastic* photos of the International Space Station crossing the sky above my town and, at the end of last week, was treated to the magical sight of an almost Full Moon blazing above the castle with an enormous, beautiful halo around it. So, definitely a frustrating week, but a very rewarding one too. And made all the more enjoyable by having some great company up there, too – namely Stella, my great observing mate Carol, and keen local photographer James Kirby. Here’s a stunning pic Carol took of all of us together, silhouetted against the bright lights of the Auld Grey Town at silly o’clock in the morning…

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Anyway, here are some of the pictures I took during the past NLC-free week, proving that even if you don’t get to see what  you wanted to see, if you’re patient, and willing to do a bit of work, the universe will always offer you a compensation. (And yes, it does help if your backdrop is a drop-dead gorgeous ruined castle, I know. Hard to go wring with that!)

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The “bright lights” of Kendal…

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Moon peeping out from behind a cloud bank…

ISS Kendal June 8-9 2014s

The space station dropping down towards the horizon after a beautiful pass…

ISS Castle Jun 8-9 2014s

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ISS soaring over Kendal Castle…

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Late night/early morning at Kendal Castle…

And now, those “Moon plus halo” pics…

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moonbow jun 12-13b sm

moonbow jun 12-13c

No, no NLC, but pretty pleased with what I got!

Clear sky forecast tomorrow night, so fingers crossed for a killer NLC display to get stuck into. Last year I still had a very basic DSLR, but now I have a much better one, and lots of different lenses, so really looking forward to seeing what I can do with it.

 

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