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Comet 67P – more images…

I love it – LOVE it! – how the ESA ROSETTA team is putting out NAVCAM images even over the weekends! Seriously guys, if you’re reading this, thank you. I think many of us expected you to bung a cork in the image pipeline between Friday and Monday, but no, true to your word you’ve kept those pictures coming.

If you haven’t seen them yet, here are the two released yesterday and today.

Comet 67P imaged on August 15th…

Comet_on_15_August_2014_-_NavCam

With a little messing about careful and curious enhancement, that becomes this, bringing out some details you can’t see on the original…

Comet_on_15_August_2014_-_NavCam enh b

And you know what? I’m *sure* we’re seeing layering of some kind here…

layering

Looking forward to OSIRIS close ups of that area…!

And today’s image, which shows us 67P from “the side” as it were, which really shows off its double nature…

Comet_on_16_August_2014_-_NavCam

…and again, with a little enhancement and reorientation…

Comet_on_16_August_2014_-_NavCam enh

Beautiful, isn’t it? I wish we could see some wider angle, longer exposure shots now tho, so we could see some of the activity coming off the comet.. the large jets and plumes we saw shooting off the comet in that fuzzy image on Arrival Day appeared to be coming out of the “neck” of the comet, shown so clearly there…

And look, there are some very dramatic cliffs on there, aren’t there?

mountains

More tomorrow…

Two worlds waltz before dawn on Monday morning…

Cross your fingers for a clear sky where you live in the wee small hours of Monday morning, because there will be something rather special to see in the east before dawn. About an hour or so before sunrise we’ll be able to see a pair of planets shining so close together in the sky they will look like one big, bright “star” to the naked eye, and through a pair of binoculars it will look like they’re almost touching…

The planets in question are Venus and Jupiter, and although planets appear to come close together in the sky fairly often – astronomers call them “conjunctions” – a close approach between two very bright planets, like this one, are more rare, so if you get a chance to see it on Monday morning, take it. You won’t regret it. You might not see such a striking sight in the sky again for a long time…

So, what do you have to do? Simple. Just stay up late on Sunday night, or set your alarm for You’re Having A Laugh o’clock (3.30/3.45am) Monday morning, then if you area able to leave your garden and head off in the car, find somewhere outside your city or town that’s as dark as possible, away from as much light pollution as you can reasonably go, with a low, flat north eastern horizon, too. That last part is very important: really try to find somewhere with no trees or buildings on the horizon to the east, and certainly no hills, or you might miss the show as any tall objects on the horizon might obscure your view of the planets until the Sun is rising and it’s too late.

Having found a good observing site – wait. Around 4am you should see what looks like a very bright “star” rising up from behind the horizon, off to the lower left of the waning Moon…

V J 1

Look more closely – use binoculars if you have them – and you’ll see that the “star” is actually a pair of stars shining very close together…

v j 6

Those “stars” are actually the two planets, but which is which?

V J 3

There you go, Venus and Jupiter, snuggled up close together in the sky! To your naked eye they might look like one single “star”, but if you have good eyesight you should be able to part them. However, the view through a good pair of binoculars – or a small telescope – should be glorious, with the two shining worlds less than half a degree apart, which is nothing astronomical terms – it’s actually less than the diameter of the Full Moon!

v j 4

If your sky is clear before sunrise on Monday morning, really, make every effort to get up and get out and see this. But if it’s cloudy on the morning, well, the two planets will still be close together the following morning, just not as close…

V J 5 19th

If you want to take photos of this event, give it a go! It’s not as if you’re wasting expensive film now, is it? Whatever camera you have, just aim it at the planetary pairing, set your camera to Auto, and see what comes out. But if you have a digital SLR camera, put it on a tripod, fit it with your longest lens and try lots exposures with different ISO ratings and apertures and you will get *something* you’re happy with, especially after a bit of processing in Photoshop or whatever picture processing software you use.

By the way, this planetary hook-up is occurring very close to a famous cluster of stars called the “Beehive Cluster”. You probably won’t be able to make out the star cluster with your naked eye, not with the sky so bright, but if you’re looking at the planets through binocs or a small telescope you should definitely notice a group of little peppercorn stars above and to the left of them…

V J 7

The official name for this cluster is “Praesepe”, and it’s also known as “M44″ – which means it is the 44th object in a list of interesting objects to be found in the sky, drawn up by an astronomer called Charles Messier – and it is a quite beautiful sight in a dark sky. You’ll see it better in a few months, don’t worry about it too much now. If you can see it great, but if you can’t, don’t worry, seeing Venus and Jupiter is more important.

But don’t worry about taking or processing photographs, or getting hold of a pair of binoculars or a telescope to look at this with, just set your alarm, drag yourself out of bed, find a good spot and enjoy the show with just your eyes. That’s what astronomy is all about. Not fancy, expensive equipment, but seeing cool stuff in the sky with just your own eyes. :-)

An interview with Dr Holger Sierks

nuc

If there’s a busier person in ESA at the moment than Dr Holger Sierks – PI for the OSIRIS camera package onboard ROSETTA – I’d be very surprised. We all remember how excited he was on Arrival Day when he was able to show the first truly detailed OSIRIS images of the nucleus of Comet 67P, and since then he has been busy talking to the press, giving media interviews and, of course, taking more images and helping look for a November landing site for ROSETTA’s lander, “Philae”. So of course, as if he wasn’t busy enough with all that, I thought I’d email him a few questions of my own for this blog! Thankfully, Dr Sierks was – as almost every space scientist I’ve ever had dealings with – more than happy to answer my questions, and emailed me back answers right away. So, here then is a brief e-chat with the man behind the lens of OSIRIS…

Dr. Holger, thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. Firstly, how did it feel when you saw the first detailed OSIRIS images of the nucleus of 67P?

As I said, it was a very emotional moment. And I felt it was a historic moment, the first time ever a human eye saw a comet nucleus with unprecedented resolution.

On “Arrival Day” you showed us a few more images taken by OSIRIS. What were your first impressions of the comet when you saw those?

Well, the comet is so full of unexpected features, it will revolutionize our understanding of activity and how comets evolve. The first impression was simply: wow!

A week after “Arrival Day”, now things have calmed down a little, what are your thoughts on what you’re seeing on the images? It looks like a very complicated body with a very troubled, dynamic and violent past?

It is a complicated body indeed. We see traces of its past, or what we think are traces. We start seeing activity, aiming for the link to the surface structures back-projecting the jets to potential source regions.

Have you been able to use OSIRIS images to calculate the dimensions of 67P with any more accuracy yet?

No, not yet, the body is complex, we are working the update of the shape model to higher accuracy. It was surprising to see how well the first determination of dimensions matched the Hubble data from light curve reduction, just about 200 or 300 meters off. We have a good volume from our first shape model, it will not change dramatically with the improved data. With the mass determined by RSI on Rosetta, we’ll soon have a bulk density, which is important for interpretation of the surface morphology, and the mission dynamics.

Comet_details

Out here in the “space enthusiast community” we’re loving seeing a new Rosetta NAVCAM image every day, it really does make us feel like we’re flying alongside Rosetta, seeing the comet turning beneath us. Are there any plans to release OSIRIS images more often? We’d love to see them!

I know, we are sharing the same interests. NAVCAM helps following, and more and more instruments are now coming up with first results. We will release images more on scientific grounds now, and have to find a balance between analysis, publication and sharing. I am optimistic that we will manage. Priority now has landing, preparing the data products for the lander team to make the right decisions.

When 67P begins waking up, will OSIRIS be able to see details in the jets and plumes which form? Might you be able to actually see pieces coming off the nucleus?

The comet is awake now. I have shown first jets last Wednesday, we get first feel to localize the jets and back project them onto the surface. The dust detector on board sees first grains. Hope we’ll see more activity soon in limb view close-ups.

A more technical question: at Rosetta’s closest point to 67P, what will be the size of the smallest surface features OSIRIS will be able to resolve? Will it be able to see Philae after landing, like NASA’s HiRISE camera can see the Mars rovers on Mars?

The scale is 2cm pixel resolution from 1km distance with the narrow angle camera. The closest point to CG is still in discussion, depends on gas drag force to the spacecraft, and thus trajectory uncertainties. We hope to get as close as 3-4 km in close fly-bys, giving 6-8cm px resolution for short times. The lander overflights will likely be done from about 10 or 20km distance, so we will see the lander by 6-12 px across, not as high res as on Mars, but we will see it.

I understand that OSIRIS is first and foremost a scientific instrument, but have you identified any “Kodak Moments” photo opportunities? Maybe imagesof 67P with famous astronomical objects behind or close to it? A bright planet? Maybe even Earth, shining like a bright star? Any images like that might not be useful scientifically, but would have tremendous outreach and education value…

We will look for it. We go for occultation obs calibrating inside coma. We will check for solar system objects, good point. We got Saturn in view during Lutetia fly-by, were surprised by that, did not check in advance.

More personally, have you yourself always had an interest in comets, or is your interest purely scientific through Rosetta? I’m wondering if you observed any comets in the sky when you were younger? Any particularly special memories?

I followed Halley watch, felt comets were so special by their nature of active objects, evolving, carrying the volatile stuff in. The special moment was when realizing how close comets are to human life, my life, and the evolution of this planet.

I imagine you must be proud to be part of a mission following on from the historic GIOTTO encounter with Comet Halley in 1986?

Proud is not the right word; I feel touched and emotional to be part of this great team that follows Halley. Rosetta carries a lab to C-G and will allow following the questions raised by Halley fly-by, and raise new questions. I hope it will help understanding our solar system, and the early days, a little better.

The new image(s) of 67P released on Aug 14th are simply stunning, and show a wealth of detail. Can you tell us – approximately – the size of the larger “boulders” seen on the ‘neck’ of the comet there?

We have not checked for the size of the ‘boulders’ on the neck yet. We checked another area for boulders though and found a max ‘boulder’ radius of 15m there, so I would use this as an approximate for a max ‘boulder’ size on C-G.

The search is on now for a safe but interesting landing site for Philae. How often is OSIRIS taking images pf 67P now? Once daily? Several times a day? One every several days?

Concerning the landing site search: we will run 3 images sequences with decreased distance to the surface from about 70-50 km, 30 km, and 20 km distance. These sequences will last a good week each with significant gaps for the distance change. We will take several images a day for the merging of images.

And how often are you imaging 67P with OSIRIS at the moment?

Well, this is it on surface imaging, at the moment and up to landing. There are days with no imaging, days with WAC in support of navigation, days with calibration on stars or simply bias and darks, and days monitoring in gas and dust on regular basis (every 2 weeks right now). We carry limited lifetime items, so an image more now is an image less later in the mission. We thus need a good rationale to take an image to begin with.

Oh, OSIRIS…

If you’re following the ESA ROSETTA mission to Comet 67P yesterday was a VERY good day for you, because there was a double whammy of ROSETTA goodness. First, 2pm UK time, right on schedule, a new NAVCAM image of the comet was released, showing another side of 67P…

Comet_on_13_August_2014_-_NavCam

…and with a bit of enhancing and processing (come on, you knew it was coming!) that turns into this…

Comet_on_13_August_2014_-_NavCam c

Ooh, that’s pretty isn’t it? Well, pretty in a “God, that’s an ugly, blasted, tortured, gnarly chunk of primitive solar system debris!” kind of way. Look closely on that flat “plain” in the middle there and you’ll just be able to see that strange, meandering fracture, crack… thing… first shown on Arrival Day on one of the first OSIRIS images to be released…

Comet_details_node_full_image_2

I hope OSIRIS will be targetted to take a closer look at that feature because it strikes me as being a promising place to look for changes as the comet nears the Sun. Actually, I’m sure they’ve already targetted it, they just haven’t let us see the pictures yet; they’re encrypted on a hard drive somewhere in Germany, on a computer standing on a plinth, wrapped up in chains and surrounded by a security field of dozens of laser beams, in the centre of a huge vault protected behind a 6ft thick door, but I’m sure we’ll be able to rove our eyes over them at some point… :-)

I’m joking there, obviously… the door is only 4ft thick… No, seriously, not every OSIRIS image is being kept behind bars, at the moment one is being released every week, and we were given one to drool over and explore yesterday afternoon. And… well… take a look. Click on it to enlarge it – I’ll wait for you to pick your jaws up off the floor and come back, ok?

Comet_on_7_August_a

I know… isn’t that just ridiculously incredible??? Look at the detail!! Look at the structures, the features! That camera is astounding! When that image appeared I Saved it quickly, and then must have spent a good hour just roaming around it, exploring, imagining I was flying over it in an astronaut jet-pack, swooping low over the surface, my feet barely clearing the tops of the ridges and outcrops as I stared down at an alien landscape littered with enormous boulders and carved and sculpted into all kinds of bizarre shapes by millennia of thawing, freezing and thawing again. Just spectacular. Then I saw that actually a PAIR of OSIRIS images had been taken, of this same view but a short time apart, which allowed the team to make a beautiful 3D image, which has to be seen to be believed.

It was wonderful seeing those new images, and all credit to the OSIRIS team for letting us see them. But, yes, I’ll admit it, it will sound ungrateful but it made me very, very impatient to see more OSIRIS images, because I don’t even think that’s one of them most interesting areas of the comet! Over the horizon there are some absolutely crazy things going on! Oh, I know, we’ll see those in time, right now the science team’s priority has to be finding a safe-but-interesting landing site for Philae to set down on later in the year… but still… just imagine what wonders other OSIRIS images are showing…

Anyway, let’s take a closer look at some of the features revealed on the latest image to be released. I think the most eye-catching area is on the neck, where there are a LOT of big boulders and rocks clustered together, casting very cool shadows across the dusty landscape… Again, click on this image (and all those that come after it) to enlarge it and show it properly…

crop1

That’s stunning, isn’t it? I wonder how big those boulders are? And where did they come from? Did they fall from the ridge in the foreground – the one casting the dark shadows on the neck itself, far below – after eroding out of it? Or did they tumble down from the slopes higher up in the image? Hmmm, If they had done you’d expect there to be trails leading across that dusty slope to them… but then again, maybe those trails were covered over afterwards by fresh deposits of material? Fascinating to speculate, isn’t it?

Here’s a cropped view of the same area from the OTHER OSIRIS image released yesterday, which gives a slightly different perspective…

crop6

Oh there’s so much going on there…

And then there’s this

crop2 arrow

That, arrowed, is a crater. I know what you’re thinking – so what! We knew comets have craters on them already, what’s the big deal? Well, look around it… look at the whole image… how many OTHER craters can you see, eh? Ah, maybe now you get it. Aren’t many, are there? And the crater arrowed is a “ghost” crater, semi-covered with material that softens its outline and makes it a bit blurry, not like the craters we see on orbital images of asteroids, the Moon and Mars. That suggests that the crater has been covered by material relatively recently (in astronomical terms, not, like, last week). But what? Dust falling off nearby slopes? Dust falling out if the sky after an active period in the comet’s history? In fact, if you look closely, I think there are hints of other craters nearby…

crop2 ghost craters

…but I might be wrong about those, they might just be knobs and knubs on the landscape that now look like the remains of craters after being covered by dust. Intriguing anyway…

And then there’s this fantastic view…

crop3

Why is it “fantastic”? Because it shows things are happening – or at least have happened – on the nucleus. Look closely and you can see at least two places where big rockfalls have occurred…

crop3 debris fans

Looking at one of those areas more closely…

crop3b

That is an absolute textbook image of a rockfall from a slope, which has sent debris spreading out across the ground below. We see those a lot here on Earth, and have even seen them *happening* on Mars too…

0f1d7452-ced4-4203-b99f-43747e66a9cd

av2c

And if you look a little further over, there’s this… (yellow ring)…

crop3 debris fans slump

…which looks a lot like a classic “slump” feature to me, where a section of a wall just gives way and, well, slumps down… like this one on Mars (this is one of my very favourite martian craters, by the way…)

slump

crop3 slump b

Elsewhere on the main image, we see this…

crop4

What is that? A heavily eroded crater? (cue Spock eyebrow lift) Fascinating

But one particular area which caught my eye was this, a small area of the edge of the closest part of the comet to ROSETTA at the time the image was taken.

Comet_on_7_August_a edge

It seems to me that if we’re looking at that terrain from such a low angle, then we’re almost getting the kind of a view we might have from ground level, or at least if we were flying close to the surface heading towards that area. So, zooming in on it, enhancing it and straightening it up, is THIS what it it would be like to by flying at low altitude over the surface of 67P and seeing the landscape of dust-covered, icy hills and rocky plains opening up ahead of you..?

crop7

Just imagine that…

So, there you are, a quick “tour” of some of the fascinating features seen on the latest OSIRIS image. It will probably be another week until we see the next one, so I hope you enjoy many hours’ wandering over this release yourselves. To finish off this post, here’s my enhanced and sharpened version of one of the images released yesterday…

Comet_on_7_August_a enh

Later today there should be another NAVCAM image released into the wild, and we’ll look at that soon after.

Getting to know 67P…

Incredibly, it’s been a week since the ESA probe ROSETTA arrived at Comet 67P and the first truly close-up views of its surface were revealed to the world. I’m hoping that means that there will be some new OSIRIS images released today, as it seems to be a once a week deal, but we’ll have to wait and see. In the meantime, there will almost certainly be a new NAVCAM image to drool over later this afternoon, because, true to their word, ESA are now releasing those daily, allowing us all to virtually fly alongside (or sit on!) Rosetta as she keeps pace with the comet, and see what she sees.

The pics released over the past few days have been very interesting. We’re now seeing parts of the nucleus we hadn’t seen before, and it’s now very clear that the surface of 67P is a very complicated, very tortured place indeed, scarred and sculpted by processes and events as yet unknown, but which will hopefully become clearer as the days, weeks and months pass…

ROSETTA_NAVCAM_20140809 d

Above: August 9th image (enhanced by myself)

ESA_ROSETTA_NAVCAM_20140810

Above: August 10th ESA image, and below, same image cropped, rotated and enhanced by myself, simply to make it look more dramatic, I’ll admit! ;-)

ESA_ROSETTA_NAVCAM_20140810 b sh 2

Comet_on_11_August_2014_-_NavCam_node_full_image_2b

Above: image taken on August 11th, cropped and enhanced by myself to bring out surface texture and features.

Looking at those images, 67P seems quiet and serene, almost asleep, but in truth there is a lot of activity going on right now, and I really hope ESA soon releases some images exposed to show the jets and spurts of gas and dust shooting out of the nucleus.

It’s incredible to think that in a year’s time 67P will be at its closest point to the Sun – “perihelion” – and will be at its mist active, and the images sent back by Rosetta should show great jets, plumes and gouts of icyy, dusty material shooting off the nucleus, the surface fracturing and cracking, and more. But before then we get to watch the comet “wake up”, and see how it changes over time. That’s something cometary astronomers and armchair explorers have dreamed for doing for a long, long time, and pretty soon comparing ROSETTA’s images taken on different days should start to reveal changes on the surface. Really looking forward to that!

In the meantime, I;m sure that the ROSETTA team are frantically putting together their first maps of the nucleus, to help with identifying possible landing sites for the probe’s “Philae” lander. Philae is a fascinating spacecraft in its own right, and if all works well will provide us with the first ever images taken from a comet’s surface, which will be truly historic. To find out more about the plans for Philae’s departure from ROSETTA and its landing on the comet, I emailed some questions to Dr Hermann Böhnhardt, lead scientist for the Philae lander, and he was very generous with his time and sent me back replies almost right away!

How many "departure" images of the orbiter do you plan on taking with the cameras onboard Philae after separation from Rosetta? HBO: Less than a handful, since the lander has to balance the internal mass storage and data uplink to the orbiter for all activities of the separation, descent and landing.

During the descent, will the cameras onboard Rosetta take any images of Philae? HBO: This is mostly in the hands of the orbiter planning, but I assume that they will try, and even after landing Osiris should be able to image the lander, at coarse resolution though.

During the descent, will the cameras onboard Philae take any wide angle images of the nucleus of 67P? HBO: yes, this is the plan and a task of the Rolis camera.

After landing, will the cameras onboard Philae be able to take wide angle "landscape images" of the comet's surface, or will they be focussed on the ground close to the lander? HBO: CIVA is meant to take images of the landscape of the landing site just after landing when the Sun is up. The cameras shall provide a 360 deg view covering the sky, the landscape to the horizon and even parts of the landing legs (namely the soles of the landing pads). The ground close to the lander will be imaged by Rolis just (i.e. seconds) before touch-down.

How soon do you expect images taken by Philae to be released after they have been taken? HBO: The landscape images and also other available science and engineering data will be used to assess where and how Philae has landed at the surface. This is a task for the first hours just after landing since the subsequent sciops of the lander depends on this information. We expect to have direct data and commanding to the lander via the orbiter by the time of Philae touch-down and some time window thereafter which will be used to uplink the data from the descent and touch-down to Earth. This should include also the landscape and ground images. The Civa images are foreseen to be released immediately after reception and pipeline processing to the lander and ESA Rosetta teams for analysis. Release to the public is a decision to be taken by the CIVa PI and ESA. My expectation is that images from the lander will come out shortly (less than 24h) after they have arrived on ground.

 Looking forward to November's landing even more now!

Meteor Shower visible next few nights…

Now that all the kerfuffle over the so-called “Super Moon” (HATE that term!!! Who coined that? Lemme at ‘em, lemme at ‘em!!) has died down, there’s actually something worth looking for in the night sky the next few nights – shooting stars, or, more precisely, more shooting stars than usual. Why?

Well, despite their name, shooting stars – or “meteors” to use their proper name – are not stars at all; they’re tiny bits of space dust burning up as they streak thr0ugh Earth’s atmosphere. And although most people think they are very rare, so rare that superstition has it that it’s worth making a wish when you are lucky enough to see one, they’re really not. The solar system is full of this space dust, it’s everywhere, and Earth is encountering it all the time. So, on any clear night, if you’re lucky, i.e. looking in the right direction at the right time, you can see a shooting star every half hour or so probably. They’re just random events, a streak of light that comes from nowhere, from a random direction, that is gone in a moment.

However, at certain times of the year we can confidently look forward to seeing a lot more shooting stars than usual, because we know that Earth will be passing through a *stream* of dust left behind by a comet. When this happens, Earth encounters a lot more space dust, so a lot more burns up in the atmosphere, and we see a lot more shooting stars. Astronomers call this event a “Meteor Shower”, and there are about a dozen good ones, and lots of small ones, every year. One of the best occurs every August, around now, so now is a great time to go shooting star hunting. August’s shower is called the “Perseid” (“purr-see-id”) meteor shower, because its meteors appear to streak out of the constellation of Perseus. Every meteor shower has a peak of activity – a time when the most meteors are visible – and the Perseids’ peak is reached every August 12th, i.e. over TOMORROW NIGHT, but there’s enhanced activity a few nights either side of that too, so tonight, and for the next few nights, if the sky is clear where you are, if you go outside around midnight, and stay out for a while, you WILL see some shooting stars.

How many? Aaah, well, that depends on a few things, some of which you can change, one of which you sadly can’t. Let’s look at the things you can change first. Although you MIGHT see a few shooting stars if you just go out into your garden, stand on your step and look up, you can HUGELY improve your chances of seeing more shooting stars by getting out of town and away from all the light pollution caused by street lights, advertising hoardings and lit-up businesses to somewhere dark, where your eyes will be able to adapt to the darkness and so see fainter things than usual. If you stay at home and look from your garden there’ll be so much light around you, dazzling you, that you will only see the very brightest meteors. Also, getting out of town means you can see MORE of the sky, which is very important. Again, from your garden you will probably only be able to see a small portion of the sky, so you’ll have to hope a bright meteor or two zips across the sky in just the right direction for you, standing there in your slippers, and trust me, that’s a long shot! But get out of town, to a layby somewhere, or a farm gateway, or a hilltop, or the beach, anywhere with a wide open view of the sky, and you will greatly improve your chances of seeing some shooting stars.

The number of shooting stars you will see will also depend on how long you are willing to stop out looking for them, too. It should be obvious that the longer you can stay out, watching the sky, the more you will see. And meteor watching can be very frustrating. You need a lot of patience. During a meteor shower there’s not a constant zip…zip…zip of shooting stars. Activity waxes and wanes, there are sudden flurries of shooting stars, with a few visible one after the other, and there are long lulls too, when nothing seems to happen. During those times, when you start to feel tired,  and a bit cold, and a bit fed up, you will hear a voice whispering things in your ear like “Go home… it’s finished… you’ve seen enough… it’s cold… you’re tired… you have work tomorrow…” but try to stay out as long as you possibly can because it really is simple: the longer you watch the more you’ll see. And bear in mind that there is always more activity between midnight and dawn than before midnight.

A personal tip here: if you’re wanting to watch the shooting stars, go in a group, or at least with an observing partner. The time will pass much more quickly if you have someone with you to talk to, it really will, and you will be less likely to listen to that voice whispering “Go home…” in your ear! It also makes the whole thing more enjoyable, as you will “ooh!” and “aaah!” together as a bright shooting star skates across the sky – or laugh when you see a lovely bright one but your partner misses it! And if there’s no-one you can go with, take a little radio for company, you’ll be amazed how much it helps just having music or people talking in the background.

So, all those things will help you maximise your Perseid-watching experience! However, this year there is a problem that we can do nothing about – a big, r0und, glaringly-bright problem: the Moon is in the sky at the time of peak activity, and it will be so bright and so close to the area of the sky the meteors will appear to zip out from that it will reduce the number we will see, quite dramatically. That’s a shame, it means we won’t see a lot of the fainter meteors, but it’s not the end of the world by any means as the brighter meteors will still be visible through the moonlight, and some of the Perseids can be very bright. So, yes, the Moon will cut down the number of shooting stars we will see, but it won’t ruin the show. It will still be worth getting out there and looking.

And how DO you look? Well, meteor showers are very, very easy to watch. Honestly, all you have to do is go outside at the right time, look up at the sky, and wait, and eventually you’ll see a shooting star. You don’t need any specialist astro equipment. A telescope is utterly useless during a meteor shower because telescopes magnify faint, small, static objects in the night sky, and meteors dash across the sky in a heartbeat, far too quickly for a telescope to follow. What about binoculars? Well, again, you won’t be able to follow any shooting stars through binocs as they skip across the sky, don’t try, but it’s definitely worth having a pair handy because sometimes the really bright meteors leave behind a ghostly, glowing smoke trail, which can linger for minutes before fading away, and through a pair of binoculars you’ll be able to watch that trail twist and turn and spread apart in slow motion. Also, during those previously mentioned lulls in activity you’ll be able to sweep your binocs around the sky, just taking in the view. It won’t matter that you won’t have a clue what you’re looking at, just enjoy seeing the different coloured stars, bright and faint, as you sweep across the heavens.

As for where you look in the sky, well, the meteors will be zipping out of a constellation called “Perseus”, which will be rising in the north east around midnight. It will be over to the left of the Moon, just beneath a “W” of stars which is the constellation “Cassiopeia”…

Perseids

 

…but the shooting stars won’t all appear IN that direction. If you trace them all back they’ll all appear to come from the direction of Perseus, so start off by looking to the north east but you needn’t look AT Perseus all the time. Some will race over your head, others to the left of you, others to the right. Some will even drop out of the sky behind you. So, just get out, look…up… and see what happens. If you see a light streak across the sky, there and then gone again in a moment, that’s a shooting star!

How bright will they be? Well, some will be bright, some will be very bright, and a couple may even be VERY bright, so bright they shock you! But most will be just bright enough to see with the naked eye, and you’ll probably glimpse quite a few “out of the corner of your eye” when you’re looking in a totally different direction.

So, that’s how to look for the meteors, and where to go to watch them. What else do you need to know?

Well, just use your common sense really. I know it’s August, but it gets chilly after midnight so dress warmly – jacket, gloves, boots, the works. If you can, take a flask of a hot drink with you, and some snacks too, both of which will help keep you awake and alert. If you’re going out alone – try not to, ok? It really is much more enjoyable with company – then let people know where you’re going.

And finally, just ENJOY it! Some amateur astronomers count the number of meteors during a shower, and log their brightness and direction etc, but don’t feel you need to do that. Just get out there on any clear night over the next few nights, and wait and see what happens. Don’t worry about the Moon, just wait and see what happens, and if your sky is clear, and you are patient, you will see some shooting stars before you eventually decide to go home and crawl back under the duvet, trust me.

Oh, and if you fancy trying to take photos, you can, but you’ll need to have a camera capable of taking long time exposures – i.e. minutes long, using a “bulb” setting – mounted on a tripod. Aim your camera – set at a high ISO (what we used to call “Film speed” in Ye Olden days!) and fitted with the widest lens you have available, set at the widest aperture possible, f2, f3, something like that – to either side of Perseus, and just take lots and lots of photos. If luck is with you you’ll capture at least one shooting star on one of your pics, but if you don’t, don’t worry about it. Photos are just a bonus, it’s seeing the shooting stars that’s important.

…and that’s it! You’re all set now to go out tonight, and over the next few nights, to look out for shooting stars from the Perseid meteor shower.

Good luck!

More 67P Rosetta goodness…

Really do need to say it again: a huge THANK YOU! to whoever it was at the European Space Agency who gave the go-ahead to release daily images of Comet 67P taken by Rosetta’s NAVCAM camera. Every day I look forward to seeing “the new pic”, and there was even one released today, Sunday! That’s fantastic work by ESA and the Rosetta team. Here’s today’s release, which was taken yesterday…

ROSETTA_NAVCAM_20140809

I know… what the **** is that?!?!?!? Just when you think 67P has reached 10 on the Bizarro Scale, it finds an 11!

Actually, I thought that orientation is a bit confusing, so I flipped it over, sharpened it up and did a bit of “work” on it, and this came out the other end…

ROSETTA_NAVCAM_20140809 c

Oh my… Isn’t that one of the strangest sights ever seen by a space probe? That shows the comet looking absolutely nothing like a rubber duck, and a lot more like a baby dragon… And with a little more messing about skilful enhancing, 67P looks like this…

ROSETTA_NAVCAM_20140809 d

Honestly, words fail me. So I’m just going to post this now.

Thank you, ESA. Good job.

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