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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…

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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…

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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…

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Oh there’s so much going on there…

And then there’s this

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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…

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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…

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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…

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

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…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…)

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crop3 slump b

Elsewhere on the main image, we see this…

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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..?

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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! ;-)

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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.

ROSETTA arrives at 67P

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I know this is old news now, but straight after the ESA webcast last Wednesday morning we headed off up to Edinburgh, for a short break combining camping with the world famous Edinburgh Festival, so I’m only now getting around to writing this. And I do want to write up The Big Day because I wrote so much here leading up to it that it’s only fair I close that particular circle.

So, last Wednesday morning I got up bright and early – woken by the cat at 5am, as I am every morning, and then went back to bed until 6 – and was able to write a few words here about the significance of the day, a post which was later quoted from as part of The Planetary Society’s blog’s coverage of landing day, before settling down with my laptop on my knee and a cuppa beside me at 9am and waiting for the ESA webcast to begin…

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There was a BIG crowd of journalists packed into the room as the webcast began, and I am sure I spotted my fellow astro blogger and comet enthusiast Daniel Fischer – who had gone along to cover the event for The Planetary Society – lurking in the audience…

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As are all ESA webcasts nowadays, the ROSETTA ARRIVES webcast was a very slick, very polished production, which reminded me somewhat of a mini Eurovision Song Contest. It featured smartly-dressed hosts, interviews with various beaming-with-pride (and rightly so!) ESA officials, key mission personnel, and assorted politicians who had supported the mission, interspersed with “catch up” clips describing Rosetta’s mission and journey to date, complete with Europop music.  One of the very best interviews was with mission scientist Matt Taylor, a big tattooed, bearded giant of a man who always Tweets and posts on Facebook very entertainingly and honestly, with a great sense of fun and excitement, and his chat with the female interviewer was really enjoyable as he struggled to contain his own bubbling excitement…

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I’m sure the interviewer blushed a little as Matt looked right at her and, positively purring with pleasure, described ROSETTA as “The sexiest space mission ever…” Great fun!

And so the webcast and the event continued, the hosts doing a great job of essentially filling time until telemetry showed that ROSETTA’s manouvering burn had indeed left her flying alongside 67P, and when that moment came and went without any drama or incident there were cheers all round and the excitement really began to pick up.

Without being churlish or ungrateful here, I think it’s fair to say that, as polished as the webcast and the event itself both were, they were both rather frustrating for the space enthusiasts watching, because until quite late on they didn’t tell or show us anything new. Yes, the “Are we there yet?” Rosetta animations were cute (awwww…. love those!) and the interviews were informative, in a tap-your-fingers-on-the-table-we-already-knew-that kind of way, but come on, be honest, most of us were watching because we were desperate to see the first close-up images of the comet sent back by ROSETTA. As you can see from the pic at the top of this post, the stage was dominated by three large screens, which showed video clips and images throughout the event, and they were the focus of many people’s attention because, in the run-up to the webcast it had been said that new images would be processed as soon as possible so they could be shown during the event, which I think we all assumed to mean would be shown ON THE SCREENS AT THE FRONT. But it didn’t quite work out that way. As the event proceeded the big screens stayed frustratingly free from any new images, even ones taken in the previous couple of days.

And then the hostess introduced Holger Sierks, the Principal Investigator of the OSIRIS camera being carried by ROSETTA. And when he appeared I thought “This is it! They’re going to show new images of the comet!” And they did… kind of…

A new image appeared all right, but shown on a large screen behind Holger Sierks’ shoulder, not on any of the big screens in the auditorium or broadcast as part of the webcast!

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Shown in this way the image of the comet was rather blurred and details were hard to make out, but it was clearly way, waaaay better than anything seen before, with stunning detail hinted at. So I did what any self-respecting astro blogger and Outreacher would do: I grabbed a screenshot, cropped the comet image from it, enhanced it, and put it up on Facebook and Twitter for everyone to see… :-)

nucleus screengrab b

And soon it was being Shared and reTweeted like crazy! There was such a voracious appetite for new images that people watching the webcast were desperate for new images, and lots of people were very grateful to be shown even that blurry screengrab. It was poor quality compared to an official release, yes, but still clear enough to show show that 67P was… bizarre, bizarre almost beyond words. Not smooth, with a few knobs and nubs here and there, and a scattering of craters, but a tortured, spiky, spiny world, with cliffs, outcrops and ridges, and what looked very much like a BIG crater at one end, looking for all the world like a gaping mouth…

A rubber duck? I don’t think so. This was totally, extremely alien. Nothing looking like that ever bobbed about in a bathtub. Things that look like that crawl out of the tap or explode out of the water, shrieking and screaming, and clawing and biting at you, while you’re playing with your rubber duck…

While I was busy working on the first image, another image was shown over the PI’s shoulder…

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…which hinted at even more fascinating detail, including some very steep cliffs and scarps! Clearly 67P was going to be a wonderful world to explore over the coming days, weeks and months, and there are going to be many surprises lurking in those shadows…

By now time was really ticking on, and we should have been on our way north, to Edinburgh, but I wanted to see if any new images would be released formally by the ROSETTA OSIRIS team before the webcast ended, and to my absolute delight they did. This is what appeared on the mission Facebook and Twitter feeds as the end of the webcast approached…

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Oh my… look at that… it’s hard to know where to begin to describe what OSIRIS has captured in that image. The comet nucleus is a tortured, twisted, gnarled thing, covered with spikes and peaks, smeared with bright and dark areas, and yes, there ARE craters on it, as we had all suspected and hoped. I was quickly able to sharpen and enhance that image, and came up with this…

BuWKEXQCcAE3AMo.jpg large b

That is a quite brutally beautiful place, unlike any body we’ve seen anywhere in the solar system ever before. And seeing that breathtaking view of the alien landscape of 67P, two thoughts sprang to mind. Firstly – what an incredible adventure it is going to be, watching that bizarre world waking up over the next year…

And secondly – where the HELL are they going to land Philae on THAT??

Soon after the webcast finished, and, more than pleased with what had been shown, and full of excitement about the discoveries and science ahead of us, Stella and I set off for Scotland. On the way I kept checking my phone for new images, and by the time we had reached our campsite a couple more had been released, including the closest views of a comet’s surface so far…

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Look at that! is that a crack, a fissure, in the surface? And look at this view…

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Just bewilderingly beautiful…

As I’ve said before, with quite brilliant timing the ROSETTA arrival coincided with a holiday in Scotland, so instead of following the post-arrival goings on from the comfort of my sofa, via my laptop, for the next few days I had to keep track of the ROSETTA mission via my smartphone whilst wandering the bustling streets of Edinburgh, one of the most ancient towns in Britain. But that was okay, there wasn’t exactly a flood of new images coming back anyway, so I was able to keep checking in briefly on the mission whenever I found a WiFi hotspot in “Auld Reekie” and then take a closer look at the images back in the tent, connecting to the campsite WiFi via my laptop. And the images I saw there, either on my phone’s small screen or my laptop’s larger one, were just brilliant, each one more bizarre, more warped, more alien than the last…

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That image, taken August 7th, reveals a LOT of detail on the comet’s surface. Let’s look at some particularly interesting areas… First, let’s look at the large crater (?) at the top of the image. Those are some very impressive cliffs there, I wonder how high they are..?

2

And the big crater – the “mouth” of the nucleus, if you want to think of it that way – is obviously a very complicated feature too, with multiple cliffs and what look like a lot of large boulders strewn across its floor…

3b

ROSETTA_NAVCAM_20140808

That image, above, is the most recent NAVCAM image (no more new OSIRIS images since Wednesday, of course… sigh…) taken August 8th and I think it’s just beautiful, don’t you? And with a little “work” on it…

ROSETTA_NAVCAM_20140808 b

…you realise just how many mysteries 67P is hiding from us. One thing that did jump out at me was the number of what appear to be landslides or spills of material on the surface, i.e. fanned-out aprons of material or falls of boulders/stones beneath some of the sharp cliffs…

ROSETTA_NAVCAM_20140808 landslides

So, here we are… ROSETTA is now safely flying alongside 67P, and has begun her detailed reconaissance of the nucleus to assist the mission team looking for a landing site for Philae later in the year. I hope we get to see some more OSIRIS images soon – it’s hard to imagine just how much detail will be visible on those by now – but we probably won’t get to see any more of those until Wednesday..? What a shame. :-( In the meantime, these NAVCAM images are *fantastic*, thank you SO much ESA! Sometime in the not too distant future, when we’ve seen and photographed the comet from all angles, there’ll be a basic map of the nucleus drawn up, maybe even with the largest, most obvious features named (provisionally) and then 67P will really start to feel like a world in its own right, not just one of countless icy lumps drifting around Out There…

Back from The Fringe…

So, we’re back from the madness and mayhem that is Edinburgh Festival. We had three hugely enjoyable days of trekking around the streets of the city – with only one afternoon/evening in the rain, despite the forecast predicting rain the whole time we were there – watching and listening to comedy, variety and street performance acts. Some good, some not so good. Best of all, by a light year, was “Hennessy and Friends“, a comedy sketch act trio we saw in a cosy (tiny) intimate (cramped) subterranean theatre room on Cowgate, which was hilarious from start to finish, and surely it can’t be long until they have their own sketch show on TV. The lead, Miranda Hennessy, was frighteningly talented, like a blonde grenade hurled on stage…

Other acts we saw were ok, but seriously, there must be a “How to be an Edinburgh Fringe Comedian”, because almost all of them we saw followed the same routine… 1) “get to know your audience” for the first quarter of your act by talking to them, one at a time, and then make generic jokes about/insult their towns, 2) Swear. A lot. Cos, well, that’s cool! 3) Use the “C” word as often as you can. Cos, well, that’s anarchic and edgy and shows *you’re* edgy and anarchic! Yeah! 4) Keep checking your watch. (Why?) and 5) dash off the stage at the end. Having said that, almost everyone in the show “Joke Thieves” we watched (coming soon to a TV near you! Very funny format, and will be a big hit unless they just use the same old acts trotted out on Mock The Week every week) followed that format but it worked for a few of them cos they were genuinely funny and had original material. But others were just doing comedy by numbers. One act we saw – won’t name him, that would be cruel – was just bloody awful, about as funny as watching a lame, blind kitten trying to cross a busy motorway. He obviously thought he was – or should have been- in The Mighty Boosh, but…no, mate, just… no…

Other than that, we went on a very enjoyable tour of the caverns and graveyards; ate a lot of Chinese; saw a fascinating exhibition in the National Museum of Scotland all about the Ming Dynasty – ruined by two old women who yakked and gossiped and prattled on, loudly, about bugger all, the whole time we were there; walked miles and miles and miles and miles (insert Proclaimers joke here) and enjoyed our quiet corner of the campsite which, miraculously, stayed free of noisy chav families and their demon-spawn kids and yappity dogs the whole time we were there. Edinburgh looked beautiful, a riot of colour, and with music everywhere you went, and the Royal Mile crammed to bursting with acts from all over (including, again, many choral groups who clearly spend all their time watching Glee) it was just a joy to be there. Already looking forward to next year.

And why am I writing about Edinburgh Festival on my astronomy blog? Because while we were there the Rosetta mission was starting to wind down from the giddy excitement of Arrival Day, and I had to follow the come down from that on my phone and laptop, which is what I’m going to write about next… :-)

The Big Day

In less than an hour coverage will begin of the arrival of ESA’s ROSETTA probe at Comet 67P. As the final minutes tick by, some personal thoughts on what it means…

 

A hundred years ago today, Europe was preparing to fling itself into the most brutal war ever known. There were – as far as I know – no bright comets in the sky to blame for the outbreak of World War I, no signs written in the sky as the continent prepared to tear itself apart, as all across Europe countries were condemning other countries, hatred and fury were building, and the future seemed very bleak indeed. Within months men and boys would be dying in their tens of thousands, slogging across muddy battlefields all across the continent. During lulls in those awful battles, when the shells stopped falling, the machine guns fell silent, and the screams of the wounded finally faded away, many of those soldiers on both sides – particularly those who came from small towns and villages in the countryside – must have looked up at the starry sky above the cratered battlefields and wondered what the future would bring. Would Europe be under the heels of dictators? Would there even *be* a Europe left after the war, or would it be left a desolate wasteland?

I think they would be glad to know that Europe didn’t just survive, it prospered and grew strong and proud. I think those men and boys would be proud to know that in the future they fought for, we didn’t just turn swords into plough-shares, we turned them into amazing machines which, when released from our hands like doves, fly between the planets, beautiful metal butterflies sending back breathtaking pictures of places so alien, so bizarre that the brave men who fought and died in those trenches could not even imagine them.

I think they would be proud to know that today, a hundred years after the horns of war were blaring across Europe, a European machine, designed, built, launched and now operated by men and women from different countries all across Europe, and beyond, is about to make history. And they would be glad to know, I’m sure, that today our enemies aren’t our neighbours; they are ignorance and fear. Today the prize is not domination over others, but knowledge, gained for the benefit of the whole of mankind.

Today we rendezvous with a comet. Today we start to learn more about the birth of our solar system, our place in the universe, and how to protect our planet. Today is going to be a great day.

Godspeed Rosetta, and good luck to all the men and women at ESA who are sitting silently in their seats, or nervously pacing the floor, or tapping away feverishly at their keyboards. We’re all behind you. And we know that later today – and on many days after – you’ll make all of us proud.

 

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