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ROSETTA sees 67P bursting into life…

Comet 67P is now approaching perihelion, its closest point to the Sun, and the unmanned European Space Agency probe ROSETTA has been taking increasingly stunning images of the activity on the comet as it enters its most active period. For a while now, the ever-reliable NAVCAM team have been sharing with us their views of the comet, releasing almost every day a new image showing jets and plumes of dust and gas shooting out of the comet’s nucleus, like this one…


The other day the OSIRIS team released a rare but very welcome image of the activity they are seeing in close-up, and predictably the image was snapped up and lapped up by both media and public alike, proof – if any proof is actually needed after all this time – that there’s a real fascination with and hunger for the high resolution views the OSIRIS team are seeing but, mostly, keeping to themselves.

Here’s the image…

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

I know what springs to mind when you look at that image…


That’s one of the most striking images taken during the ROSETTA mission so far, I think, and it shows just how active the comet is. In fact, that image is one of a sequence of images, which together show that this was a short-lived event, a real sploosh of gas and dust spurting out of the nucleus for a brief time before dying away again…


That must have been like a fire extinguisher going off beneath the crust. Imagine standing nearby and seeing that… wow….

It was great to see that image released into the wild, and thanks should go to the OSIRIS team for that, but I remain absolutely baffled by their attitude to image release. For example, there’s a big astronomy event going on in Hawaii at the moment, a meeting of the IAU, at which astronomers from all around the world gather to share their latest data and discoveries, and as you would expect the ROSETTA mission is represented there too. Last night OSIRIS PI Holger Sierks gave a presentation about the most recent findings at 67P, and although I wasn’t able to watch the presentation I was able to follow it, in a way, via Twitter, as people who were there tweeted about it. This particular Tweet caught my eye…


WOW! OSIRIS is now seeing pieces of the comet breaking off as it approaches perihelion! Other tweets reported that OSIRIS has seen wide-scale surface modification on the comet – i.e. previously-photographed features on its surface have either changed or gone altogether – which bodes well for the weeks ahead, when 67 will really start to wake up. But this image caught my eye too, for a different reason…


Look at all those empty chairs! Where WAS everyone??? Now, I know that that is probably a huge room, and that talks run parallel at these events, so attendees can’t get to everything, but still…

And I couldn’t help thinking that that picture shows a very basic flaw in the OSIRIS team’s argument that they can’t release images because they fear their work being stolen by other scientists. Because, while some of the people in that room will have been journalists, others were *scientists*, some of them probably the very ones the OSIRIS team are so worried about gazumping them, yet they were perfectly happy to show them images that aren’t being seen elsewhere…

Er, does anyone else think that is just a bit nuts? I mean, if I was a scientist and I was genuinely worried about someone using my images to steal my research out from under my nose, I just wouldn’t show them to *anyone*. I certainly wouldn’t show them to a roomful of my competitors. That’s asking for trouble, surely?

It does rather suggest that, as I have thought all along, the OSIRIS team a) simply does not want to share its images with the media and the public, and b) really doesn’t get the importance of the whole “outreach thing”. They are clearly happy to share their images with fellow scientists, at big conferences, but letting the public see them, by releasing them to the media, seems out of the question. And that’s both wrong, and, frankly, ridiculous. It’s actually shooting themselves in the foot. I mean, look at the recent public and media reaction to the releases of the NEW HORIZONS images, that was fantastic! Imagine how people would react to seeing those OSIRIS images of *pieces of the comet coming off the nucleus*! Imagine the PR boost that would give the ROSETTA mission, and ESA!

I don’t know, I just don’t get it. They just don’t seem to realise how important a part of any space mission outreach and public engagement is. Baffling, seriously.

In an ideal world all the images that have been shown at the IAU event would now be released into the wild, via the ESA website, seeing as they have been seen *in public* at a major international science conference open to the media. But I doubt that will happen.

Go on, OSIRIS team, prove me wrong… :-)

ROSETTA – One Year On…

It’s hard to believe, but it’s true – it’s now almost a year since ROSETTA “arrived” at Comet 67P! Ok, so the actual arrival day wasn’t until early August, but by this time last year the NAVCAM images were starting to show the true shape of, and some detail on, the nucleus of Comet 67P. Take a look at how 67P looked on July 29th last year, and how it looks on the most recent NAVCAM image to be released…


What a wonderful year it’s been! Through ROSETTA’s eyes we’ve seen a comet revealed in its true glory for the first time, watched it wake up as it nears the Sun, seen jets and plumes of gas and dust bursting off it, shining in the darkness. We’ve seen its towering cliffs, deep pits and boulder-strewn plains of dusty ice, stark black and white in the harsh light of the faraway Sun. Now the comet is approaching perihelion – the closest point to the Sun in its orbit – and I’m sure ROSETTA scientists are just as intrigued as we all are to see what will happen when the comet is at its warmest. Will there be a sudden burst of activity? Will it actually split in two, along the famous crack seen on its neck?

So, a year after arriving at 67P ROSETTA is still doing incredible science, and sending back incredible images, and thanks to the ongoing and tireless work of the ROSETTA Outreach team and the the NAVCAM team, many thousands – yes, thousands! – of those images are available online for us to browse and drool over at our leisure. There is a gallery of them here, straining at the seams there are so many NAVCAM images crammed into it…!


Sadly, almost a year after ROSETTA arrived at 67 the OSIRIS team still has not released a proper batch of images, as it said it would, and as it is supposed to under the terms of its own – rather dodgy, it has to be said – agreement with ESA. I’ve written about this situation at length on this blog already, and my opinion of the OSIRIS team and their image release policy is well known, so I won’t go through all that again here now. I will, however, point out the stark contrast between the different behaviours and attitudes of the OSIRIS team and the NEW HORIZONS team.

collage nh osiris

So, as ROSETTA accompanies 67P on its plunge towards the Sun a year after catching up with it, I’d like to say a huge THANK YOU again to all the people responsible for ROSETTA’s Outreach program, and for working on and releasing the NAVCAM images which essentially *are* the mission, because without them we wouldn’t even know the probe was still doing anything.

I can’t wait to see what wonders await in the next batch of NAVCAM images!

Mapping Pluto and Charon

Before we go any further, just take a moment to look at the title of this post again… “Mapping Pluto and Charon”… isn’t that crazy?? A couple of weeks ago both Pluto and Charon were just points of light in the sky, at best tiny discs on images taken by the Hubble telescope. Now we have flown a space-probe past them, and seen them in sufficient detail to allow maps of their surfaces to be drawn. That’s insane..!

But even better, many of the features shown on those maps have now been given (provisional) names by the New Horizons team, with many more names to follow. Overnight Pluto and Charon have gone from being just (just! ha!!) visually exciting but almost cool beyond words thanks to the names chosen by the New Horizons team, names which were suggested by members of the public.

There’s a full list of all the names given to features so far here…

Pluto Name Bank Proposal

…but basically the names given to features on Pluto, Charon and its other moons all follow certain themes. Here are the themes, and some of my favourite names plucked from their lists of features on the maps…


* Important spacecraft from the history of spaceflight: Challenger; Voyager.

* Scientists and Engineers: Burney (not a scientist or an engineer, but the young girl who suggested Pluto’s name after it was discovered, so only fair, I say!)

* Historic Explorers: Norgay

* Underworld Beings:Cthulhu; Balrog (VERY cool!)

* “Underworlds and Underworld locales”: Tartarus

* Underworld Travellers: Heracles.



CHARON: ( aka “ComicCon Moon” from now on… )

* Fictional Explorers and Travellers (the most fun theme, they might just have well have called it “Fave sci-fi characters”!): Kirk, Spock, Skywalker, Leia. Solo, Vader, Dorothy (Wizard of Oz)

* Fictional Origins and Destinations (aka “Fave place on a sci fi story!): Vulcan (that’s a huge surprise, isn’t it? Not.), Shire, Mordor, Tatooine, Hoth, Galifrey (YES!!!! YES!!!!!!!!!!!!! GALLIFREY FALLS NO MORE!!!!!), Krypton.

* Fictional Vessels (aka coolest spaceships from sci fi!): Serenity (oh… sniff…!!!), TARDIS (get IN there!!!), Nostromo (come on… you know this one… the butt-ugly mining ship from Alien? There you go…), (strangely, no “Enterprise” here… odd)

* Exploration Authors, Directors and Artists: D Adams (as in Douglas “Hitch-hikers Guide” Adams), Clarke (as in Arthur C).



* River Gods: Hapi (named after the Pharell Williams song… ok, no, not really…)


* Deities of The Night: Incubus, Succubus (ok, junior school teachers, try explaining those in class…)


* Dogs from History, Literature and Mythology: Laika (long, LONG overdue!!!!!), Toto (Dorothy’s dog, thus ensuring 99% of visitors to Kerberos in the future will say “I don’t think we’re on Earth any more, Toto…” to their mate after stepping off the shuttle, convinced they’re the first person ever to think of it…)


* Legendary Serpents and Dragons: Smaug (again, long overdue, and some enterprising colonists or settlers will surely arrange some rocks into Smaug’s shape in the future)

…and many, many more to come!

Seriously, well done New Horizons team for choosing those names, and for showing yet again just how in touch they are with the general public following the mission  “out here” . Some dusty fuddy-duddies might moan that the names of some features, especially those on Charon, are too geeky and sci fi, but (loud raspberry noise) to them, those are all good, honourable names, the names of people, places and vessels which have inspired and excited generations of people to follow space exploration or follow careers in it. To know that there are craters called Kirk and Spock on Pluto is quite moving, and I am obviously thrilled to bits that The Doctor’s home planet and spaceship have been honoured, too.

And as for naming a feature on Charon after Laika… thank you, just thank you.

Some of you reading this are probably thinking “What’s the point? No-one will go there for decades, if not centuries!” Well, for one thing, naming the features on Pluto and its moons is just a practical thing for the New Horizons team to do – they can’t just go on talking about “that crater up there, near the bigger one, just below the valley…” forever. they need to be able to talk about local landmarks and features and have everyone know which one they’re referring to right away. And also, naming things on a map, if it’s of a coastline, a continent, a moon or a whole planet – makes it more real to us as human beings, and helps us get our bearings. If that wasn’t the case, why would we bother naming the spiral arms of our own galaxy, or even naming star clusters, nebulae and galaxies in the depths of space? It’s just what we do, and will always do. One day astronauts standing on Mars will christen the largest rocks and boulders scattered around their landing site, just as astronomers will one day name the continents, mountain ranges and islands of planets and moons orbiting distant stars, to make them, just as the first people to set foot on those exotic worlds will give names to the new constellations glittering above their settlements after their alien sun has set.

Time to update a certain picture, I think…!

collage pluto mao

Look what science, dreams and determination did, working together…:-)

NOTE: the maps used in this blog post originally appeared in this feature on Buzzfeed

The beauty of Pluto

Every now and again, on a day which comes out of nowhere, when we’ve slipped into taking for granted the fact that we live in an age when beautiful new images of distant planets, moons, star clusters and galaxies are available for us to enjoy almost every day, the universe gives us a serious; hard kick up the backside by showing us something… remarkable. Then we all sit back in our chairs, stare at it in genuine shock and awe, and all we can do is shake our heads and mouth a silent “Oh wow…”

Yesterday was one of those days.

I’ve managed to watch all the previous New Horizons media events from the comfort of my sofa, with my laptop on my knee, Peggy purring beside me, and the new pictures displayed in all their widescreen glory on my laptop’s Big Screen. It has been like being in the front row of a cinema showing the NASA TV feed live, and I’ve loved it – and a huge thank you, again, to the New Horizons team for sharing their images, their thoughts and their sheer joy with us.

Yesterday, however, I was unable to do that. After a mid-day funeral over in the north east, as the press conference began I found myself in a buffet restaurant, with my laptop and cat the best part of seventy miles away, and only my phone to take me to the latest media briefing. Of course, the wifi signal in the place was dodgy, so i had to use my phone provider’s web access, which was little better than dial-up speed and so not fast enough to le me actually watch the NASA TV coverage, and to just squirt cream on the top of the cake I was down to 11% battery charge left too. Great. But of course I took a look anyway, too impatient to wait until we got home to look at the latest images. Unable to watch the media briefing itself I turned to Twitter to follow the event as it unfolded, which is almost as good because people attending and watching the briefings – not just reporters or bloggers or space enthusiasts like myself, but scientists involved in the New Horizons mission and others – report on them in real-time via Twitter, and it’s almost as good, actually better in some ways, as it’s so much fun and so educational to read the delighted/baffled/giddy tweets from experts seeing the pictures for the first time and doing “instant science” with the.

So,  anyway, there I was, attacking a plateful of lasagne and garlic bread, when someone (can’t remember who now) posted a link to a pic on Twitter, saying something like “OMG! OMG!!! PLUTOOOOOOOOO!” in the Tweet. Intrigued I tapped the link on my touchscreen –


…and I just sat there in stunned silence, fork hovering in mid-air halfway to my mouth, literally struck dumb by it.

That was… Pluto… seen from behindeclipsing the Sun.. its hazy atmosphere a glowing halo all around it…

Pluto’s atmosphere.

Sitting there I was hit by the fantastically ridiculous absurd thrill of the moment. I started sky-watching as a very young kid, stealing glimpses of the Moon and its craters through borrowed binoculars and then my first cheap toyshop telescope. Growing up I got deeper and deeper into the hobby, bought telescopes, cameras and computers, all of which dragged me deeper down still. Now here I was, all grown up (ha!), a children’s astronomy book author and editor, proud Secretary of my local astronomical society, sitting in a noisy, heaving restaurant, in Gateshead, surrounded by hundreds of people feasting on pizza, burgers, salads, ice cream and more, and I was looking at an image of Pluto taken from behind, by a departing space probe, on my phone

When i got home I fired up the laptop and caught up with the images release properly. The caption beneath the released HQ version of the photo says:

Backlit by the sun, atmospheric haze rings Pluto’s silhouette like a luminous halo in this image taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft around midnight EDT on July 15. This global portrait of the atmosphere was captured when the spacecraft was about 1.25 million miles (2 million kilometers) from Pluto and shows structures as small as 12 miles across. The image was delivered to Earth on July 23.

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

…but that doesn’t do justice to it, does it? That is a stunning, stunning image. Just take a moment to drink it in, to savour it, to roll it around your heart and mind like the last sip of a glass of fine wine. That’s Pluto, that’s the “dwarf planet” thought for so long to be a boring, dull, ball of ice way out there at the classical solar system’s edge. We’ve thought for a long time that it has an atmosphere, that comes and goes as it orbits the Sun, but I never expected to see it so vividly and beautifully on an actual photo. did you? It’s a grossly over-used term, but I think it’s fair to say that that image is now one of the iconic images of the space age, and you will be seeing it in every astronomy text book published from now on, every single one, now that Pluto has been transformed from a small disc with vague markings to a real, vibrant world with craters, plains, mountains and more.

More images were released yesterday, including this new (new, that is, unless you’d already seen it on Brian may’s blog) high resolution view of Pluto…


…and this beautiful new “false colour” view of Pluto…


…and this landmark image, which shows glaciers on Pluto… yes, GLACIERS!!!

04_McKinnon_02c…but I keep going back to that wonderful back-lit Pluto image… I wonder how the New Horizons team felt when that appeared on their screens? I wonder how many couldn’t breathe for a moment, or actually shed a tear? Probably more than one, because it’s clear from watching and listening to them during their media briefings that they are loving every single moment of this, relishing it, and the joy they’re feeling shines out of them. And of course, best of all, they are letting us share their excitement and joy by releasing their images and talking to us about them, so we feel involved in the mission, a part of it, not outside of it looking in.

pluto behind2

They didn’t have to do that. Following the example of another science team, they could have whined about the threat of people stealing their science, and, shouting “Proprietary period!!!” retreated behind their doors, slamming and locking them behind them, allowing no-one in, reluctantly sliding a picture or two under the door every now and again just to do the absolute bare minimum.

Thankfully, Alan Stern and the New Horizons chose not to follow that example, and as a result their mission has ignited the public’s imagination. Pluto images are everywhere, everywhere, and both NASA and the New Horizons team are riding high on the crest of a wave of public admiration and support. No-one is questioning the expense of it all, they’re just caught up in the joy of the exploration, and it’s wonderful, it really is. So, again, thank you to the New Horizons team for letting us accompany you on your voyage of discovery. And if anyone from that other team is reading this, i just hope that when you were watching the New Horizons media briefings, devouring the beautiful images like I was, seeing the excitement and passion of the team, and reading the gushing blog posts, Facebook reports, Tweets, newspaper editorials, and watching the generous TV news coverage of the New Horizons mission that followed you suddenly thought “Oh ****, we’ve done this all wrong, we’ve made a huge mistake…” because yes, yes you have. You could have done it the right way, you were encouraged and asked to do it the right way, but you chose not to. Congratulations.

In the meantime, there will probably be something of a pause in image/science releases from the New Horizons team now, as they focus on science and safely downloading more data from their spacecraft, but I reckon they won’t be able to contain their excitement if anything spectacular comes back and they’ll let us see. So, keep checking back here for new images.

Pluto and Charon in close-up

Friday evening there was another media briefing from the New Horizons team, this time at NASA HQ, and more images taken during the fly-by were released out into the wild. The team looked excited but tired, and the big reveal of the previous media event was a hard act to follow, but the images they showed – with Brian May beaming from the audience – were beautiful and showed just what a fascinating world Pluto is.


Here’s a view of part of the flatter, brighter region referred to so far as the “heart”, which has now, very fittingly, been christened (also informally for the moment) “Tombaugh Regio” in honour of Pluto’s discoverer… and to everyone’s surprise it shows a landscape very reminiscent of the icy polar terrain found on both Earth and Mars…


The mission scientists – as well as other scientists and armchair experts all around the world – have been pouring over that image and speculating giddily about what it shows, and are very excited about the dark features gathered in the “cracks in the pavement” on the edges of the polygonal features. Some are vertical features – mounds, hills, whatever. Elsewhere, some dark spots look suspiciously, to some, like they could be pits, and many are wondering if we’re seeing evidence of Triton-like geysers and maybe even plumes on Pluto…!


Looking forward to seeing higher resolution images of those in the days, weeks and months ahead.

The pace of image release will really slow now, as the team knuckles down and starts getting stuck into the science, so the next big media briefing will be next Friday night. I’m sure we’ll see some more wonderful portraits of Pluto then. :-)

Pluto and Charon in the spotlight

Later today there will be another release of images from the NEW HORIZONS team. Yes, another. They released some a couple of days ago, mid-evening Wednesday actually, but I haven’t managed to write about them yet – yeah, I know, unlike everyone else in the world! ( Sorry, but I have a real life to attend to sometimes, I can’t just sit here eating pickled onion Fish n Chips snacks and writing about pretty pictures of Pluto like this every day… )

So, Wednesday night was the Big Reveal we had all been looking forward to – the NASA TV-streamed “media briefing” at which the first truly high resolution images of Pluto and Charon would be released. I managed to grab an hour’s kip before the briefing, shattered, and then almost slept right through it when my alarm (Stella) failed to wake me as early as I had wanted, and I had an absolutely frantic race against time to fire up my laptop and get on to NASA TV before the images were released. Luckily there was a bit of waffling at the start of the event, so I was watching when the first close-up of Charon was shown to the world –

And when it appeared on my screen I actually let out a gasp.,

charon 1 NASA TV

Oh… my… god.. look at THAT…

A dark polar cap… a valley system meandering across its middle… a hint of a truly giant canyon on its limb… craters dotted here ad there… I don’t think anyone had dared hope Charon would look anything like that, and when it was shown the crowd gathered at the event went justifiably nuts, just wild. And with that one picture Charon was instantly transformed into a genuine moon, a proper world “out there” in the depths of the solar system. It’s worth comparing what Charon looked like when it was discovered in 1978 with what it looked like to New Horizons as it sped past…

collage charon

A little bit of photo imaging trickery brought out some of the lower contrast detail on the image…

nh-charon enh me

Isn’t that incredible? (not the processing, the moon I mean!) Looking at that I’m torn between wanting to whoop and cheer at what NH actually saw and wanting to reach into the screen and somehow rotate Charon around until that fascinating gorge-like feature up there at 2 o’clock is brought fully into view. That must be an incredible sight…  oh well, next time… ;-)

No sooner had all the excitement about that image died down than it was time for the image release everyone had been waiting for – the first high resolution view of the surface of Pluto. Watching NASA TV I could almost sense hundreds of thousands of people all around the world leaning forward, towards their screens…

Pluto close up 1 NASA TV


Seriously, I wanted to punch the air and shout but my breath caught in my throat. All I could do was sit and stare at it, open-mouthed. And when the camera cut away to the people on the stage, with the image behind them, I knew they were talking but I wasn’t listening, just catching the odd word or two. One word kept being used… “mountains”…

What? What did they just say? Mountains?

Yes. Mountains. There were mountains on Pluto.


Not just any old mountains tho, mountains of ice as hard as rock… mountains as hard as rock, 11,000 feet high, or “as high as the Rockies”. That sounded very impressive, but as I’d never seen them, even though I’d heard of them obviously, I had to Google them –


So…. Pluto has mountains as high as that…. ok…………

I watched the rest of the media briefing, but even though I knew people were talking, and others were asking and answering questions, I couldn’t really pay attention; I was too hypnotised by that image of MOUNTAINS ON PLUTO, and it hit me then just how far we had come in just a handful of days…


And that was a close up of only one teeny tiny part of the surface, down there near the bottom of the disc…


In the days and weeks ahead the NH team will release more and more images with that resolution, slowly creating a mosaic of the surface of Pluto in quite ridiculous detail. Discoveries will be made on those images, people will Find Things that will make history and change science, forever. And we can all join in, by viewing the images on the NASA and NH websites and speculating too.

Here’s the highest resolution version of the “mountains” pic I could find…

nh-pluto-surface-scale NASA

And after a bit of tinkering…

nh-pluto-surface-scale v2crop

Stunning, just stunning. I went to bed with visions of Pluto’s mountains in my head that night, I can tell you…

Yesterday set out as being a “rest day” for those of us following the NH mission. No image release was planned, but after an outcry on Twitter and Facebook from people who were besotted with the mission, an image mysteriously appeared… no connection I’m sure… ;-)


This time we were shown a close-up of part of the surface of Sharon, showing lots of craters (planetary scientists love craters, they’re great for helping calculate the age of a body and for unravelling the story of its past) and a lot of speculation has followed about that strange “sunken mountain” up at the top there, but I won’t go into that now cos we’re about ten minutes away from the start of today’s media briefing and I have to log on to NASA TV. More later, with whatever new surprises and wonders the NH team shares with us!

Farewell, Pluto…

It’s now (checks watch) 9.43am on Wednesday morning, the day after the New Horizons Pluto flyby, and after a grand total of three and a half hours sleep I’m tapping away on my laptop, again, trying to make sense out of what happened yesterday. It was an awesome day, and somehow managed to be breathlessly exciting even tho, to be honest. not much really happened, at least not until the early… VERY early… hours of this morning. But I’m jumping ahead. Sorry, blame laptop jet-lag.

After getting up at 5.30am, too excited to sleep, yesterday morning was spent essentially sitting on my sofa, with Peggy beside me, staring at a screen and drinking cup after cup of tea, flicking between Twitter and Facebook, following the Tweets and posts of people either involved in or covering the mission, at the same time as watching a real-time simulation of what New Horizons was doing, and regularly checking an online countdown clock and waiting for it to reach zero. By mid-morning Twitter was groaning under the weight of Tweets from all the reporters, journalists, bloggers and space enthusiasts covering the flyby, as well as the Tweets of people actually involved in the mission, who were happy to keep the public and the media informed about what was happening and what they were doing, and it was hard keeping track of them sometimes, but worth it just to drink in the enthusiasm and the passion of everyone following the flyby, either in person over in the US or remotely online. The simulation was NASA’s brilliant “Eyes on The Solar System” app, which you download onto your computer and can then use to follow space missions like New Horizons in “real time”, with the screen displaying an accurate simulation of the spacecraft’s activities and movements.


Above: “Eyes on the Solar System” showing NH with 4 hours to go until closest approach.

Watching that was just wonderful, like sitting atop the probe as it raced towards Pluto, seeing Pluto growing larger and larger up ahead, watching the probe’s orientation change as it swung its cameras between Pluto, Charon and the smaller moons. You can see from the above screengrab that “Eyes” features a countdown clock in the bottom left corner, so I was able to keep an eye on the time with that, but I still found myself checking another website showing a clock counting down the hours, and then the minutes, and eventually the seconds until New Horizons flew past Pluto and made its historic closest approach to the dwarf planet out there in the Kuiper Belt. A habit, I think, as I’ve been following the spacecraft’s progress on that website for weeks now, but all part of the fun.

By 10.49, with two hours to go until closest approach, excitement was really building. “Eyes” was showing that NH was closing in on Pluto and its system of moons fast…


…and on Twitter and Facebook speculation about what NH’s photographs would show when they were received back on Earth was rife. Everyone was impatient to see The Image, a colour image sent back by the probe the previous day, before it had hung up its “Do not disturb!” sign around its neck and got down to business. Our expectations were certainly raised tho when NASA Administrator Charles Bolden – who had obviously seen it in advance – started singing its praises during interviews with callers on NASA TV. I noted what he was saying, and shared his comments on Twitter…

my tweets

The release of the image itself was scheduled for 1pm, in a media briefing broadcast live by NASA TV which would follow a celebration of the moment of closest approach, and no-one expected to see it before then. But…

At just after quarter past twelve, with half an hour or so to go until closest approach, a “sneak peek” preview of the image suddenly appeared online! Not a leak; NASA had deliberately released a low-resolution version of the image on its Instagram account, in advance of the release of the proper image, and everyone went wild for it!

instagram colour

Within a few minutes it was going around the world like a shock wave, being ReTweeted and Shared like crazy even as New Horizons continued to scream towards Pluto at more than 30,000 miles per hour. It was everywhere!

And the minutes kept ticking by…

At 12.30 NASA TV began a broadcast from the Johns Hopkins University, control centre for New Horizons, and the place was absolutely PACKED with people who had gathered to celebrate the fly-by. The atmosphere was genuinely electric, and as team members were interviewed, and people prepared to wave the smallest Stars and Stripes flags I have ever seen, I kept my eyes on Eyes… and suddenly we were just ten minutes or so away from the big moment…


“Eyes” showed Pluto overflowing the field of view of NH’s cameras, and on NASA TV the excitement climbed and climbed and climbed… everywhere except in the Mission Operations Centre, where one guy seemed unmoved by the whole thing…


Suddenly there was less than a minute to go..!


…and on NASA TV the countdown began. With everyone on their feet, flags in hand, they chanted… “10… 9… 8…” Huge smiles everywhere, some nervous, some happy. “7… 6… 5…4… 3… 2… 1…”

closest approach


countdown zero

And the place ERUPTED –

I couldn’t help feeling very emotional too. It was an incredible achievement – after a journey of almost ten years, after covering more than three billion miles, a spacecraft had just raced past Mars! But…

Part of me wasn’t sure WHY we were celebrating so much. After all, we didn’t actually know WHAT had happened at 12.49. If everything had worked properly, NH had just sped past Pluto in one piece, cameras clicking madly, like an American tourist on an open-topped bus going around London. But if something bad had happened earlier – if the probe had suffered another computer glitch, or had been hit by a piece of grit blown off Charon or one of the other moons, or if it had been smashed to bits in a collision with a previously unknown mini moon – then we were celebrating under false pretenses. I think a few other people thought that too, but it was the elephant in the room, no-one was speaking about it. Instead everyone swished and swayed their tiny Stars and Stripes flags, and whooped and high-fived and punched the air. Some even started chanting “USA! USA! USA!”

Now… I know some people don’t like all that Rocky V stuff during NASA events, but you know what? I do, and I think it’s perfectly fine for them to do it. After all, it’s their success they’re celebrating, their achievement, they DID it, so why shouldn’t they puff out their chests and celebrate? They’ve earned it! It’s something we should do more! I imagine that if Beagle 2 HAD phoned home on Christmas Day back in 2003, with Colin Pilinger beaming behind them the scientists in mission control would have shook hands politely, smiled self-consciously for the watching TV cameras and then got back to work, looking forward to dunking a Hob Nob or maybe a bourbon in a cup of tea later, when all the fuss had died down.

With the moment of Closest Approach passed… whatever had happened out there… it was time for the media briefing, and the Big Reveal of The Colour Picture –

red pluto.php

When that was shown at the media briefing it was bedlam, more whooping, cheering and clapping. That was a genuinely historic moment – the first close-up colour picture of Pluto was there for all to see. Such detail, such clarity…

And this has to be said: watching that grand unveiling I was struck, almost like a blow across the face, with the contrast between the attitude of the NH team and a certain team in charge of an instrument onboard a certain comet orbiter. Yesterday, NASA and the New Horizons team happily – and I mean happily, they were delighted to – released the first close-up colour image of Pluto in history, mere hours after it was taken, without any need for “proprietary periods”. They shared it with the world, as soon as they could, in fact they worked through the night to ensure it was ready to be released to the media and the public, and laughed with sheer joy as they did so. And watching them, the joy of exploration wrotten all over their faces, it was ironic to imagine the OSIRIS team tuning in at the same time, looking at that gorgeous image at the same time everyone else was, oohing and aahing over it like everyone else did, while *their* images of 67P stayed firmly behind lock and key.

I hate being so negative, really I do. I want to trumpet ESA – MY space agency! – and the ROSETTA mission from the rooftops, but yesterday really showed the problem. With absolute joy and delight the New Horizons team released an absolutely ICONIC image, an image that will literally go down in history as the first close-up colour image of Pluto. That image is drenched in science, because everything on it, *everything*, was new. Yet there are OSIRIS images now six months old, showing stunning detail, that the team there have already used in their papers and work, but they still refuse to release them. The contrast could not be starker. Later today NASA will release the first close-up images of the surface of Pluto, as soon as they can, without any bleating or science-gazumping paranoia. The NAVCAM team continues to release gorgeous pictures and there are now free-to-browse galleries containing thousands of them. Meanwhile there are dozens, hundreds, thousands of OSIRIS images perhaps that have already been worked with but are still being held back. It’s just so, so sad. And it really has to change. Someone has to make them change.

UPDATE: With incredible timing, a couple of hours after I wrote this a whole clutch of OSIRIS images was released by ESA, and some of them are stunning. So, credit where credit is due, thank you to the OSIRIS team for finally giving ESA permission to use some of their pictures and to share them with us!

So, there it was, Pluto in colour! But I must admit it wasn’t as colourful as I’d been expecting, especially after what Charles Bolden had been saying earlier during his chats on NASA TV. Yes, it was colourful… in a washed-out, salmon-pink kind of way, but I had been expecting something more like this, to be honest…

red pluto b sm

(that’s my tweaked version, made after the image was posted online)

But nope, not complaining, there was Pluto, in colour, with a bewildering variety of landforms and geological features on its surface – craters, mountains, or certainly rolling hills, and much more besides. Fantastic! I made this picture ti bring home to people just how far we’ve come, and soon it was spreading across Twitter and Facebook…

collage time

(Key: Pluto discovery image / early Hubble image / later Hubble image / New Horizons early B&W pic / New Horizons colour image)

And, of course, the best was yet to come…

..and after that it all went rather quiet, because the probe wasn’t scheduled to take a break from its science activities and beam home the space-probe equivalent of an impatient teenager’s “I’m ok, I made it, stop worrying!” phone call for several more hours, and then there would be a delay of several hours more until that message was actually received, so it was finally time to get away from the laptop, grab a bite to eat and then go and get some much-needed fresh air.


The evening passed relatively quietly. Again, much of it was spent reading Tweets and FB posts from people who were reporting on, involved in or just following the mission. There was a flurry of excitement before midnight when NASA released “new colour images” of both Pluto and Charon, and compared to the one released in the afternoon they SCREAMED colour!


WOW! Look at those!! That’s more like it!!

Ah… wait… those were “false colour” images, enhanced and manipulated and tweaked by the science team to highlight different surfaces and minerals, etc. Looking at those pictures I couldn’t help wonder if they were the ones Charlie Bolden had seen and been so amazed by, but surely the boss of NASA wouldn’t make such a mistake…

The false colour images of Pluto and Charon offered a lot of “instant science” even for the layperson. Most obviously, they showed that the famous “heart” on Pluto is actually composed of two very different areas – the area on the left is a much paler, much more yellow colour than the one on the right, which is much bluer. Also, the “ice cap” up at the top there looks very feathered, very tattered. And finally, look at that dark “polar cap” on Charon… isn’t its colour very similar to the colour of the dark areas on Pluto’s equator?

crop enh3

Up to midnight I lived on my laptop, reading all the Tweets from the New Horizons HQ where people were gathering to wait for the make or break moment of the whole mission – the receipt of the “All’s well” signal from the space probe after it had passed through the Pluto system. That wasn’t due to come back until just before 2am, during a NASA TV media briefing which was scheduled to begin at 01.30, so I finally gave in and grabbed an hour and a half’s sleep before getting up again, going online again, and tuning in to NASA TV to wait… and wait… and wait…

When I went back online and logged on to NASA TV it was 01.20 here in the UK, 8.20pm over at the media briefing, and boy were they looking tired. I can’t imagine the type of day they’d had, but it was showing on some of their faces. Now the MOC (mission control) was full of people, some of them very nervous-looking, staring at screens and waiting for New Horizons’ signal to reach Earth and reassure them than everything was ok out there…

MOC waiting signal

No-one was hoovering now! Amidst all the tension and anxiety, one lady was an oasis of calm…


That’s New Horizons Operations Manager Alice Bowman, who I reckon will wake up this morning – hopefully after a good night’s sleep! – to find she is a new national hero for her role in the mission. I was really, really impressed with her throughout the whole mission, she was cool, calm and collected throughout (no matter how she was feeling inside!) but never came across as a cold engineer, she was always approachable and obviously totally in love with what she was doing. So, as the minutes ticked by NASA TV focussed on her, sitting at that desk, listening to her headphones like Jodie Foster in CONTACT, waiting to hear The Signal from New Horizons…

And then it seemed like something was going on. Someone behind Alice broke out into a grin and made a pumping fist gesture. She gave a little smile, listening to her headphones… and slowly, so slowly it became apparent that yes, the probe had phoned home. NH had made it safely through the Pluto system!

signal celebrate

Cue shouting, clapping, whooping, cheering, an auditorium of people jumping to their feet in celebration…

But had it done all it was supposed to?

One by one, Alice went around the mission team, asking for a report on the status of their particular part of the mission, and one by one they all reported back: “….. is nominal”… “…is nominal”… “nominal results from…”

In space exploration, “nominal” is good. Nominal means normal. Nominal means “working just fine, thank you for asking”. Nominal means “YES!!!! GET IN THERE!!!!!!”

New Horizons had not only made it through the Pluto system, but along the way it had made all the observations and measurements it had been asked to, had carried out all its planned maneouvres, and had come out the other side in tip top shape.


The celebrations in the auditorium were heartfelt and genuine, and after a short break to let everyone calm down the New Horizons team was brought out to be applauded and cheered by the crowd, bounding down the steps towards the stage, smiling beaming smiles, shaking hands.

stern stairs

That’s I Alan Stern running down the steps like a contestant on The Price Is Right…

manager steps

…and that’s Alice Bowman, looking quite amazed by the whole thing.

Some looked like they’d just won the lottery, others looked utterly bemused. Some looked close to tears, others just weary to their bones, but one by one they fulled the stage and basked in the applause of the crowd…

team 2


After speeches by various NASA top brass, and a really great speech from PI Alan Stern…

smiling stern after signal

…there was time for a Q&A with the audience, and again Alice Bowman, and her love for what she does, shone from the stage…

mission manager

Eventually the media briefing crawled to an end, everyone clearly shattered after their long day, and once it became clear no new images were going to be released I decided to finally call it a day myself, having been up since before 6am the previous morning. Beside me, where she had stayed for most of the day, Peggy was fast asleep, snoring quietly, legs kicking and ears twitching in a happy cat dream, so I left her to it and went to bed…


Now? More waiting! As I type this New Horizons is more than 770,000 km past Pluto, on its way deeper into the Kuiper Belt, and the NH team are going through the first batches of data sent back by the probe since it passed through the Pluto system. At 8pm tonight, UK time, there will be a very important media briefing when we will get to see what we’ve all been waiting for – the first high resolution, close-up views of the surface of Pluto! Will we see mountains, canyons and plains? Will we see individual craters, cracks in the ice, huge boulders? We’ll have to wait and see.

Try to be patient. It will be worth it!


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