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Right. Before I go any further with this post, I want to make a few things clear so there is no misunderstanding. I am fully supportive of ESA as an organisation, and have nothing but praise and thanks for the ROSETTA team which is working so hard, with limited time, resources and budget, to “spread the word” about the mission and publicise its achievements. I want to say a special and public THANK YOU, AGAIN, to the team responsible for releasing the navcam images of Comet 67P, which have, as they promised us they would, shown us what a bewilderingly exotic and bizarre world 67P is. None have been released for a few days now, but hopefully it’s just a pause while everything is so busy, and we;ll see miore navcams soon, I have nothing but praise and more thanks to the mission’s outreach team which has worked tirelessly, for years, to raise public awareness of and interest in ROSETTA’s historic encounter with 67P through countless cute animations, exciting competitions and attractive, info-packed websites. They’ve done, and continue to do, a fantastic job. The ESA “Comet Chaser” blog is especially good, and much thanks needs to go to everyone working on that.


There is another camera onboard ROSETTA, a much higher resolution one than the navcam called OSIRIS, which has been taking absolutely jaw-droppingly, ass-kickingly incredible images of the surface of 67P – pictures which we are not being allowed to see despite countless appeals from the pro-space community and journalists. And that is now, I’m afraid, becoming nothing short of a disgrace.

Now, before going any further, let’s be clear about this, again. This OSIRIS image hording is nothing to do with ESA. ESA has no say over when, or which, OSIRIS images are shared with the world. But come on, that’s wrong, it just is. ROSETTA is a publicly funded mission – no, it is: we all pay taxes, and our elected Govts have seen fit to hand over some of that tax to ESA, to do cool stuff with, like fly ROSETTA to a comet and take pictures of it, so we all have a stake in the mission, however small – but the public are grudgingly being tossed scraps from the OSIRIS table.

Essentially ESA gave OSIRIS a lift to the comet in a fancy car, which we paid for, and now it’s there OSIRIS is leaning out the window, snapping away like crazy, but keeping its pictures to itself, whilst calling out cruelly “Wow! Look at that! That’s amazing!! Unbelievable!” to all of us working our day jobs, desperate to see the pics, but deprived of them.

Now I’m not stupid, I’m not naive. I know that there are Reasons why we’re not being shown the pictures, and the people sitting on them believe they are good reasons. For a start, the OSIRIS team must be INCREDIBLY busy looking for a safe landing site for Philae next month, so they won’t have time to prepare all their images for release by writing the captions and media blurb that accompany such things. That’s fair enough. Also, there’s no getting away from the fact that the OSIRIS team is “just following the rules”. They’re not obliged to release their images because their archaic agreements with ESA, and ESA’s contributing states, allow them to sit on those images for up to 6 months, giving them time to use them for scientific research before the rest of the world gets their grubby little paws on them. And I can see the sense in that too, because I am that if I was an OSIRIS scientist I would be concerned about people outside of the mission using their data to “do science” with and beat me to announcing discoveries in papers and journals. But no-one is asking for *every* image to be released, just a few. I would never, ever risk a scientist’s career by demanding the release of everything, that would be foolish and selfish and unrealistic.


Come on… OSIRIS must have taken *dozens* of images by now, surely, and we’ve seen less than half a dozen to date. I cannot – and absolutely refuse to – believe that there aren’t *some* OSIRIS images which would show us the incredible surface of 67P without needing a whole day to write a press release for them, or risking a career, or opening up a planet-eating rift in the space time continuum.

Somewhere on a server in Germany there is a folder stuffed full of pictures taken by OSIRIS which show such incredible detail they would knock our socks off. We should be allowed to see them.

Now I know this might sound like a bit of a bawling, fists-thumping-on-table “I want! I want!” tantrum rant by an impatient, selfish space geek… and ok, guilty as charged, I DO want to see those pictures ,myself, cos I AM a space geek and I live for this stuff, and I really, really want to see the surface of 67P in detail. But, less selfishly, I also want to be sharing these images with the people who read my blogs, and who come to my Outreach talks. I want to be able to shout out, with those pics, how amazing ESA is, and what an incredible achievement this is! And again, keeping ALL the OSIRIS images under lock and key is just… wrong.

What I just can’t get my head around is this: the ROSETTA Outreach and publicity team has worked tirelessly, for YEARS, to promote the mission and to get people around the world to engage with it and get excited about the encounter with 67P. They made the probe into a cute media star, with its own presence on Twitter and Facebook, and essentially brought it to life for people all around the world, giving it its own personality. At the same time ESA has been telling us what a fantastic mission ROSETTA is, and how it would revolutionise our understanding of comets, and take the best, most detailed ever images of a comet. And now, with ROSETTA within spitting distance of the comet, and with space enthusiasts, journalists and the public all whipped up into a pre-landing frenzy, there are none of those images to see! They should be everywhere! On every blog, every space website, forum and tumblr. It’s crazy!

No, let’s be frank, let’s be honest. It’s not crazy, it’s foolish. In fact, it’s bloody stupid. There, I’ve said it. Lots of people are thinking it, and whispering it to each other, but not daring to say it outloud. Ok, I will. The way the OSIRIS images are being withheld from the public is bloody stupid. Even the most unexceptional scientifically could be exciting, inspiring and educating people across the globe just because they show things never seen before. The people responsible for those images should be looking at the way the public, space enthusiasts and amateur image processors have all embraced the release of navcam images, and felt a part of the mission because of them, and thinking “Hey, that could be us!” They could be using them to show the public just what an incredible achievement OSIRIS is and putting out a “harmless” one every couple of days. Instead they’re just not listening to the appeals for more images to be released, and sitting on them. And I’m sorry, but I think that’s pretty shameful.

And come on, seriously, did no-one in charge of OSIRIS image release notice the reaction to the release of the gorgeous whole Mars globe image taken by India’s Mars orbiter yesterday? Twitter, Facebook, forums and space news websites went absolutely insane! Just imagine the reaction – and the surge in support for ROSETTA and ESA – if they released an OSIRIS pic showing the surface of 67P at 1m resolution, which is the resolution possible for the camera now, I believe…

I don’t know, it just makes no sense to me, sitting on everything like this. Every picture can’t be invaluable. Every picture can’t be The One that scientists need to write their career-making paper. Every picture can’t be so important it has to be held hostage, chained to a radiator in some cellar beneath the Max Planck Institute for Science.

Can it?

What does everyone else think? Do YOU want to see the OSIRIS images of 67P, or are you happy to wait until next Spring to see them? Let me know in the comments. But keep it civil, and polite, and respectful. This policy is wrong, but the people involved are good people, if a little misguided. I’m sure they think they’re doing the right thing. They just need to wake up to the fact that the world has changed, and that it;s no longer ok to sit on images like this when there are people wanting to see them.

In the meantime, if anyone with the key to the OSIRIS vault reads this (I’ve written to the OSIRIS Project Manager twice now, but no reply), if you won’t listen to me, you might listen to this guy…


Thank you :-)

Philae landing date and time announced!

Ok, attention everyone following the ROSETTA mission to comet 67P – stop what you’re doing, grab your phone, or your diary, or run over to your wall planner and mark the following down:


Yes, we now have a confirmed date for the historic landing of ROSETTA’s Philae lander on the surface of the comet! The time isn’t so certain, because that depends on which landing site they go for. There’s a big review of the landing team on October 14th when, after reviewing the latest and most detailed images of the landing sites available, they will decide between the Primary site, site “J”, or the back up site, Site “C”. Here are the timetables for what will happen, depending on which of those sites they go for.

SITE “J”: Philae will detach from ROSETTA at 08.35 GMT, and will land on the comet’s surface around 4 hours later. Confirmation of the landing will be received on Earth around 16.00 GMT.

SITE “C”: Philae will detach from ROSETTA at 13.04 GMT, and will land on the comet’s surface around 4 hours later. Confirmation of the landing will be received on Earth at around 17.30 GMT.

As part of yesterday’s press announcement, ESA released a new image of Site “C”. Here it is…


I’ve worked on that a little to bring out more detail, and cropped it’s a closer view of the actual landing site. Here it is, as usual click on it to enlarge it…

Philae landing site

That’s a fascinating-looking area, isn’t it? With that enhancement it’s clear that there’s a lot of topography at the landing site, so the pictures Philae sends back should be very exciting! When we’ll actually get to see those images is another matter, of course, but I’m sure that at least one will be released to the media quickly for them to use in their reports that evening. After that? Well, we’ll see. We’re all aware of the situation re image release by now.

But anyway, November 12th… that’s going to be a heck of a day, isn’t it? Imagine how tense it’s going to be after Philae is released… after that, all everyone will be able to do is wait to hear that it’s landed safely, and we’ll all, along with everyone at ROSETTA mission control, and ESA, just have to sit and wait for Philae to phone home. If she does, wow… the roof at ESOC will lift, won’t it? If she doesn’t… well… that’s not going to happen, is it! be positive! :-)

Seriously tho, this is going to be a huge thing if it comes off – Mankind’s first landing on a comet. The stakes are incredibly high, but the potential rewards even higher. And 67P has turned out to be an even more intriguing, even more fascinating world than we dared imagine. Here are some enhanced crops from yesterday’s released images…





crater crop

Love that last image of Big Crater (my name, it hasn’t got an official one, well, as far as we know, though I’m sure it and lots of other features on 67P have been “christened” by the ROSETTA team by now), cos you can see so much detail on its floor.

Really looking forward to the landing day now, especially as the 24hr slip means I will now be able to enjoy it properly: I’ll have finished work and be back home in time for the landing now, but I would have missed it a day earlier because of my shifts, so thanks ESA! :-)

Gorgeous new images of 67P from ROSETTA…

I was hoping desperately for ESA to release a new picture of Comet 67P today, seeing as it’s been a week since the last one was released into the wild, so it was a delight to find not one but *two* new ROSETTA images on the ESA ROSETTA blog when I checked earlier, one taken on the 21st and the other on the 24th of September!


Here they are…



Credits: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM

I particularly like the second one there because of the way the dramatic lighting angle casts long, long shadows, highlighting features and details on the comet’s surface, some of which I’ve picked out here…





Huge thanks to the ESA team for releasing these images, as ever. Here’s hoping that we see some new OSIRIS images soon, too. They must be showing jaw-dropping amounts of detail by now…

RED MARS coming to our screens, at last!!!!

rm peg

Oh my…

Went online this morning, hoping to see some new pics of Comet 67P from ROSETTA, but didn’t see any (at first… see next post). Instead I saw something which made me gulp like a goldfish that had jumped out of its tank. Literally.

Oh my… deep breath Stu… deep breath… Was it true? Was someone playing a cruel trick on me? Was it all a wicked wind-up?

Nope. The same story was on several sites, so it was true… Someone is FINALLY going to transfer my favourite ever SF book, the beyond-stunning RED MARS, by Kim Stanley Robinson, to TV!!

As I sat there, Peggy purring away beside me, oblivious to my thumping heart, my first thought was YESSSSSS!!!! FINALLY! After countless aborted attempts – including annual and increasingly-tiresome “James Cameron to Film Epic Mars Trilogy!” rumours – it seems that someone is going to be brave and bold enough to film the book that changed my life, forever.

My second thought was wait… hang on… oh no, oh no, oh no… they’ll mess it up, they’ll ruin it, they always do…!!

But the fact that it’s going to be filmed by the “Game of Thrones” team – which does “epic” pretty well, they’ve proved, I think – is encouraging, and with the right casting (ooh, that‘s going to be a minefield… it will have fans of the books up in arms if they get it wrong… I don’t envy the casting directors, picking actors and actresses to play handsome, dashing John Boone, moody and bitter Frank Chalmers, passionate enviromentalist “Red” Ann Clayborne, scheming, beautiful Maya, cool scientists Sax Russell and larger than life Arkady! Brian Blessed springs to mind there…! Awesome characters! Hopefully they won’t “re-imagine” the First 100 as sexy supermodel 20 somethings) and budget they might, MIGHT bring the incredible story to life in the way it deserves to be. I’ll keep my fingers crossed…

You have probably sensed that this is a big deal for me. Why? Well, because, as cheesy as it sounds, “Red Mars” changed my life. It was, literally, a life-changing book. It turned my interest in Mars into a passion, it intellectually and emotionally pushed me off a cliff and sent me diving headfirst into a love affair with the Red Planet which continues, and deepens, to this day. Reading it was like being plucked out of the 20th century and transported to Mars of the future and being involved in its colonisation, working alongside the terraformers, seeing the planet’s landscape changed. The first time I read that book I lived it, I devoured it, I drank in every page like a glass of fine wine. It devoured me. And every time I have read it since, and I read it just about annually, it has slapped me across the face again with its power and scale and ambition, bringing Mars to life again. Since it was written its transfer to the screen, large or small, has been announced several times, but without a single scene being filmed. Which is probably a good thing; I doubt that the technology existed to do the story, its characters and landscapes justice until now. If special effects have advanced to the point where the worlds of Narnia and Middle Earth can be brought to life, they can now show us Mars properly too.

So… here we are… Red Mars is coming to our screens. What does this mean, apart from “You’ll finally have to get a Sky subscription now, Stu…”? It means that guys, finally, *finally*, after all these decades of **** ups, crappy effects and scenery and unconvincing landscapes, we might get to see Mars – the real Mars, the beautiful Mars, the epic, noble, ancient, Time-sculpted Mars – in her true beauty and glory.

Bring it on.


JETS! (Ooh ooh ooh ooooh ooh ooh oooooh oooh oooh) JETS!

Oh, come on….  The WINGS song? “Jet”?

Oh never mind.


Today’s NAVCAM image released by the ROSETTA team is a corker! Just take a look…


…and can you see what I can see? Coming out of the “neck” of the comet? The clue is in the title of this blog post…

jet crop 2b

Yep, that’s a beautiful big JET of… stuff… shooting out of the comet! And it’s got company! I reckon two or three jets are hiding in the background of this image, but they jump out with a bit of gentle coaxing….

jets 19th shown

And if you reverse that image, turning it into a negative view, I think they stand out even more clearly…


These are great, aren’t they? They really show the comet has come to life. Just imagine what details the OSIRIS images must be showing, looking right into the vents and fissures which are the sources of their outbursts..! Oh well, I hope the OSIRIS team are enjoying looking at them and showing them to each other. We might get to enjoy them next Spring. We’ll see.

In the meantime, a huge thank you, AGAIN, to the ESA ROSETTA team for sharing their gorgeous navcam images with us. They’re stunning, and “out here” we’re all loving them!

A Tour of 67P…

Another day and another stunning NAVCAM image (or, more accurately, a mosaic of 4 NAVCAM images) released by ESA…


Oh, that’s a beauty isn’t it? With a bit of sharpening up etc, it looks like this…

Comet_on_14_September_2014_-_NavCam b

Oooh, much more menacing!

But look closely and that image gives us a great new view of some of the comet’s most interesting features – its cliffs, craters and peaks…


No doubt these have all been imaged in jaw-dropping detail by the OSIRIS cameras, but as the OSIRIS team clearly have no intention of showing the rest of the world those images, I thought I’d get stuck into today’s image release, isolate those features and show them a bit more clearly, hopefully bringing the landscapes of 67P to life a little bit more in the process. Anyway, click on the following images to enlarge them and see what you think.

Love this first one, looks like a fortress on the top of a mountain… VERY Middle Earth…


More intriguing spires…


Incredibly varied landscape, with a huge crater and strange, sculpted peaks and spires nearby…


My eyes keep being drawn to these incredible cliffs which fall away from a broad, boulder-strewn plateau… Remember, this was Landing Site Candidate A…


Just look at that great gaping crater…would anyone really be surprised if a Star Wars space worm leapt out of that, snapping at ROSETTA..?


What intrigued me about this area was that it looked pretty flat and dusty on the original image, but when enhanced and sharpened up a LOT of detail jumps out at you…


These are the mighty cliffs which surround the largest crater seen on 67P, which is close to the area selected to be Philae’s landing site in November. But panic not, they are on the opposite side of the crater to Site J, so as scary looking as they are they shouldn’t really pose much of a threat to little Philae.


…and finally, just look at this boulder.. it has other chunks of rock embedded in it…! :-)


I hope you enjoyed the tour! I know those portraits of some of the surface highlights of 67P are not perfect, but they’ll have to do until we get to see those OSIRIS images … :-)

It’s “J”!

This week will go down in history as a week of two very important decisions. On Thursday, the Scottish people will decide if they want to leave the United Kingdom and become an independent nation. But earlier today, many hundreds of miles away from Scotland, another decision was announced – the choice of the landing site on the nucleus of Comet 67P for the ESA “Rosetta” probe’s “Philae” lander.

Since arriving at 67P, the Rosetta probe has been mapping the comet in great detail, taking high resolution images for its mission scientists to scour in search of a suitable landing site for the little probe, which promises – if successful – to revolutionise our understanding of comets and maybe even of our species’ origins and place in the universe. As of last week, they had narrowed down the possible landing sites to these…


But which one? Well, while space enthusiasts obviously want Philae to set down somewhere amazing, in a spot straight out of “Armageddon” – you know, somewhere with jagged icy spires on all sides and great “OMG!!!” jets of dust and gas shooting up out of the ground – for Philae’s rather more practical and necessarily cautious scientists, “suitable” means somewhere on the comet that yes, offers useful views and great science, but is as safe as possible too, somewhere free of the lander-crippling boulders and cliffs, landslides and ledges which cover the comet. Not necessarily somewhere which looks appealingly smooth, because smooth areas might only be smooth because they’re the cometary equivalent of quicksand pools, and soon after setting down on one Philae might find itself sinking to a dusty doom, but definitely somewhere that doesn’t look like something out a Tim Burton film either.

Today there was a big press announcement at ESA HQ, and the choice of landing site (and a “Plan B” site) was revealed to the world. Which one was it? Was it (cue cheesy music)…


…this fascinating looking broad ledge, with steep cliffs dropping away on one side..? Or…


…the heart of the roughly circular crater (which STILL hasn’t got a name yet, or at least we haven’t been told its name, cos it must have one by now, surely? Come ON ESA! Give us the name!) on the front of the smaller of the comet’s two lobes, with its floor absolutely covered with lethal-looking boulders, rocks and stones? Or…


…this hummocky, hilly area with hole-in-one bunkers on all sides? Or…


…this intriguing area, with all the ledges, outcrops and ridges Bruce Willis and Ben Afleck could hope for? Or…


…which looks fairly flat, but has interesting stuff around it?

And the answer was…

(roll on the drums)


(cheers… applause….)

Come on, of course it was J. That seems to offer the right balance of safety vs scenery for the mission team, so that’s where they’re going to aim Philae on Nov 11th.

I say “aim” because this will not be a controlled landing, like an Apollo lunar module or a Mars rover. Basically, Philae is going to be pushed out of Rosetta and will then fall down to 67P’s surface like a baby bird falling out of a nest. The mission team will aim for the “J” landing site, and must be confident they can hit it, but boy, this is risky. Landing a space probe on a comet has never been attempted before, so this is genuinely, and in the truest sense of the word, a first in the story of space exploration. Probes have flown past comets before, but never landed ON one. So when Philae is sent on its way towards 67P it will be taking a leap into the unknown, and what happens shortly after will either have the Rosetta team leaping up into the air and whooping with relief or delight, or leave them sitting in silent despair with their heads in their hands. Philae will either set down safely on 67P, secure itself to the surface with its harpoon and start sending back breathtaking images and priceless data, or it will meet some horrible fate, and its mission will end as it is cruelly smashed to pieces against a house-sized boulder, sent tumbling down a steep, crumbling cliff, or bounces off the comet and goes spinning off into space, lost forever.

Dear god, imagine that… imagine if that happened, after all the triumphs and successes… No, surely not…

Well, such a disaster is a very real possibility. Nothing like Philae’s landing has ever been tried before. One can only imagine how the Rosetta team will feel on that day. I don’t envy them. How would you fancy trying to land a small, fragile, multi-million pound box of computers, cameras and state of the art scientific instruments from a great height onto a cracked, melting, unstable chunk of dirty ice covered in more spikes, rocks and ravines than it is possible to count?

But let’s not poke Fate in the eye with a sharp stick. On Landing Day whatever will happen, will happen. In the meantime, where is Site J, and what’s it like?

Site “J” is close to the aforementioned crater on the ‘front’ of the smaller of the comet’s two parts, or on the top of the rubber duck’s head if you would rather think of it that way. Here’s the official ESA image showing the location of Site “J”…


An image of 67P taken on Aug 17th shows the twin-lobe nature of the comet rather more clearly, and I’ve labelled Site J on it. Click on this image to enlarge it and look for the red circle…

17 aug J ringed

Let’s look at that area in a little more detail. ESA released some images of “J” after today’s big announcement, and I’ve done a bit of work on one of them to show Site J and its surroundings in more detail…

Philae_s_primary_landing_site_close-up sh1

A closer look at the surrounding area is very informative, and shows a variety of interesting features in the landscape…

enh 2 circled features

As you can see, it’s quite close to the edge of the big crater – and that is good because it makes it relatively easy to find on images of the comet taken in the past. All you have to do is find the big crater, and that “ramp” leading down to its floor from one side, and voila, you have the location of Site J!

Aug 17 image lines

So there you go, you should now never have any difficulty picking out Philae’s planned landing spot on images of 67P as they are released. Let’s look at Site J again…


It’s impossible to get a sense of scale from that picture isn’t it? Luckily, ESA provided a scale bar for us on a previous image release…

UuPtltP…which tells us that from top to bottom, and side to side, that image of Site J is about 1km across. 1km. Sounds tiny doesn’t it? Surely there can’t be too much risk of landing there? We’d be able to see anything dangerous, right? You think? Let’s take a look at a Google Earth image of central London – centered on Trafalgar Square actually – and see what that looks like…

trafalgar square 1kmSee that red line? That red line is 1km across. The same width as that image of Site J. Let’s put the two together…


That’s a bit scary, isn’t it??? Some of those boulders are bigger than buildings!

And that’s the SAFEST place they found to land…

And that is why this is going to be such a hard feat to pull off. When Philae drops down towards Site J it will be heading towards truly chaotic terrain – an unforgiving landscape of boulders, rocks, ridges and outcrops, each one a potential mission-killer. Really, all we’ll be able to do is squeeze our eyes tight shut, cross our fingers and, as we make a wish, keep whispering “I do believe in Philae… I DO believe in Philae…”

This will be ESA’s Apollo moment, for sure. When HUYGENS landed on Titan it was flying pretty much blind, it was pure pot luck what it landed on – if it landed at all. The true nature of the surface beneath HUYGENS as it descended on its parachute was unknown. But we have seen the surface beneath Philae, and it is proper scary. So, if ESA pulls this off, and Philae lands successfully, between boulders, between ledges, away from outcrops, it will be an incredible thing, an amazing thing, and if you’re a regular reader you’ll know how much I detest that word. If Philae lands safely the ESA control room will erupt, absolutely erupt in a volcano of relief and pride. Fists will pump the air, backs will be slapped, and tears will be shed. And the tens of thousands of us watching on our computers, tablets and phones, will celebrate too.

But no-one… no-one… should be under any illusions that this is going to be easy.

ROSETTA has already been a remarkable mission. It has imaged asteroids, planets, and now a comet. It has already revealed 67P to be a bewilderingly complicated and weird nightmare of a world, plucked from the most fevered dream of the most disturbed cosmic artist. For generations we have grown up believing that comets were really just fluffy, burpy snowballs, that melted if they foolishly wandered into the heat of the Sun. Now we know, thanks to ROSETTA, that they’re not. They’re really not. Peering through ROSETTA’s eyes we have watched 67P grow from a single, sequin pixel in the blackness of space, to a cluster of pixels, to a vague blur, to a strange, double blur, then to a weird rubber duck…

And now 67P is there before us, two spiky, spiny, twisted, tortured masses of ancient dusty ice joined together, tumbling through the darkness like a diseased, disfigured shark prowling the depths of the ocean. It’s an enemy to be defeated, a monster to be tamed.

But ESA is up to the challenge, of that I have no doubt. And right now, as you read this, ROSETTA scientists will be hunched over tables and desks, looking at blown up images of the landing site taken by the OSIRIS camera – images which I’m sure are far, far more detailed than we’ve been allowed to see – looking for anything and everything that could harm or kill little Philae on November 11th as she tries to make Mankind’s first landing on a comet. I wish them all the very best of luck.


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