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Comet Tales…

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I have a little spare time in which to catch-up on my blogs, so I thought I’d take a look at two rather different Comet Tales…

Recently I’ve been following two comets very closely – Comet 67P, the bewilderingly-shaped target of ESA’s ROSETTA mission (above, left), and Comet Lovejoy (above right), which has been drifting through my sky since the end of last year. I’ve been checking-in on 67P every day for months now too, since ROSETTA arrived at the comet in that blaze of publicity last August, followed by the Philae probe’s dramatic “landing” not long after. Thanks to the continuing hard work, generosity of spirit and sheer joy in science of the ESA ROSETTA mission’s NAVCAM and Outreach teams, since the probe arrived at 67P we have all been able to to essentially fly alongside it as it has studied and explored the comet, with new NAVCAM images being released almost daily. And yesterday we had a rare image release from the other ROSETTA camera team, the OSIRIS team which is responsible for the probe’s highest resolution cameras, which have been taking breathtakingly-detailed zoomed-in images of features on the comet’s surface. This new OSIRIS image actually shows an outburst from a jet on the comet!

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

Isn’t that BRILLIANT?????!!! Since last August the comet has been revealed by the NAVCAM images to be a stunning object, a mini world of boulders, towering cliffs and gaping craters, with each day’s new images showing plumes, jets and geysers of gas and dust shooting out of the nucleus. That fantastic OSIRIS image actually shows the birth of such a jet, something never seen before. There’s a lot more information about the image, and when and how it was taken, here…

http://blogs.esa.int/rosetta/2015/04/20/osiris-catches-activity-in-the-act/

And you see, this is why I am so frustrated with the OSIRIS team! That’s a gorgeous image, a real WOW!! I wish they would release more of their pictures, I really do, it’s such a shame and such a waste. Contrary to what some people think, I don’t want to be writing all this negative stuff, I don’t enjoy it. I want to be celebrating ESA’s and OSIRIS’ achievements here, shouting from the rooftops, proud of how amazing the pictures are! I want to be showing the kids I talk to in schools, and the retired people I talk to at U3A meetings, and the members of Womens Institutes I talk to in small village halls the glorious images taken by OSIRIS, banging the drum for them, for ROSETTA and for ESA itself… but I can’t. I’ve emailed the team about this, and even the DG of ESA himself, but keep getting fobbed-off with the same old stuff about “contracts” and “negotiated agreements” and “terms” etc, but there’s just no movement, even when I point out that Outreachers like myself, and professional science journalists, could be doing so much good with images like that… But the OSIRIS team just won’t let us see what they’re seeing, damnit

Oh well, at the end of the day that’s up to them. They’re their images, they worked hard to get them, over many years, and under the terms of their ESA contract they are perfectly entitled to keep their pictures to themselves. The rest of the world will just have to wait until the team decides to share the pictures they’ve been enjoying in private all these months. Until then, sincere and heartfelt congratulations to the OSIRIS team for their fantastic image, and let’s hope that, having seen all the excitement and interest that image caused, someone inside ESA, somewhere, has a quiet word with the OSIRIS team and asks them to lighten up and share the wonder of 67P with the rest of us.

And let’s all hope that when ExoMars lands on the Red Planet, the images it takes are shared more freely…

In the meantime, here are a couple of the most gorgeous recent NAVCAM pics for you to enjoy…

Comet_on_15_April_2015_NavCam Comet_on_15_April_2015_b_NavCam

ESA/Rosetta/NavCam – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0

So, thanks to ROSETTA we can enjoy seeing a comet close-up. Meanwhile, for the past five months or so, amateur astronomers like myself have been enjoying watching another comet, but from a rather greater distance.

I had my first sighting – and got my first photo – of Comet Lovejoy 2014 Q2 way back in December, on Boxing Day actually, when it was a barely-there out of focus star ridiculously low in the sky, beneath Orion. Almost drowned out by the light pollution above Kendal it showed as just a tiny, tiny smudgy… thing… on my photo, but it was there, definitely there, and I was SO chuffed when I saw it on the back of my camera! It’s circled on the image below, but you’ll have to click on it to enlarge it…

1st pic enh circle

As the weeks and months passed I followed Lovejoy as it sailed across the northern sky, curving and climbing up from beneath Orion, heading for and then passing the Pleiades before slicing through the W of Cassiopeia. It was an easy naked eye object (from a dark sky location) for a while, and although it has faded beneath naked eye brightness now and will soon be a telescopic object…

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Dec 28th

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Jan 12th

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Jan 13th

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Jan 16th

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Jan 18th

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Feb 3rd

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Feb 26th

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March 28th

Lovejoy

April 15th

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April 19th

… … …

When Lovejoy eventually drops out of sight it will leave me, and many sky-watchers around the world, with many happy memories. And after that? Well, we know of a few comets due to be visible in the northern sky later this year, though none are going to be bright enough to see with the naked eye. In the southern hemisphere, a comet is slowly climbing towards naked eye visibility as I write this. But it will probably not reach Lovejoy’s brightness.

What we need is another Hale-Bopp, or Hyakutake, or West, to light up the sky and get everyone – astronomer and non-astronomer alike – gazing up in wonder. Statistically, one is on its way, that’s for sure. It’s out there, right now, waiting to be discovered, waiting for someone – an amateur staring into the eyepiece of a saved-up-for telescope, set up in their back garden, or a scientist sat at a desk, staring at a screen, studying images taken by an automated survey telescope – to find it. When that faraway, hazy smudge’s orbit is calculated the numbers will tell us that it could… could… become a bright naked eye object in the sky, with a fine tail stretching many degrees across the heavens, and excitement and anticipation will begin to rise. Then, if all goes well, we will be able to look up a the sky and see one of Nature’s most thrilling sights – a bright, naked eye comet painted on the starry night, its tail looking like the beam from a searchlight…

When will that comet be found? We can have no idea. It might have been found already, and as you read this a press release might be being prepared somewhere, ready to be posted online, thus beginning another giddying, breathless ISON-esque countdown.. or it might not happen for months yet, or even for many years. But it WiLL come, and then we will see what happens. I can’t wait!

But before then, ROSETTA will continue to monitor, study and photograph 67P, and when it screams around the Sun who knows what will happen… It might swoop around it safely and emerge on the other side whole, or it break into two pieces, or into many pieces, we just don’t know. Again, we’ll have to wait and see.

I can’t wait to find out…!

Quick ROSETTA catch-up…

I’ve been so busy drooling over the latest images from Opportunity recently that I’ve kind of neglected the ROSETTA mission to Comet 67P. ROSETTA is still there, swooping and soaring above and around the comet, which is now showing significant activity with glowing jets and plumes and streamers of gas and dust shooting out of it in all directions. And. as they promised us they would, the NAVCAM team continues to regularly release images, some showing wide field views of the comet’s whole nucleus, others showing the comet’s bewildering landscape in stunning close up. Here are a few of the most recent, and my processed versions of them…

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Comet_on_14_March_2015_b_NavCam b

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Today the NAVCAM team released a whole batch of images taken during a recent close fly-by. The images are beautiful, richly-detailed and show the comet’s tortured, bizarre surface on all its glory. You can see all the new images here

One of the most striking images released today is this two frame mosaic of the Imhotep region of the comet…

Comet_on_28_March_2015_NavCam_mosaic(1)

Click on that to enlarge it and lose yourself in all the spikes, towers, pits and layers of the comet’s landscape. As soon as I saw that I knew I had to have a go at processing it – as usual, not with any high pretensions of making it “better”, that would be ridiculous.No, really just to make it more dramatic and jump out of the screen. See what you think anyway…

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I’ve just tried to make it starker, as I’ve said before, more like the images in the “Full Moon” book published all those years ago.

Actually, ROSETTA almost paid a high price for those images. As a frightening post on the ROSETTA blog explains, during the fly-by the probe’s star-tracking navigation instruments were confused by the blizzard of snowballs and particles now surrounding the nucleus, and it became a little disoriented. Read all about it here…

http://blogs.esa.int/rosetta/2015/04/01/rosetta-status-report-close-flyby-navigation-issues/

Phew!

Thanks again to the NAVCAM team for continuing to release their wonderful images, which allows all of us to accompany ROSETTA as she explores and studies this fascinating icy world…!

Book review: “The Rain” and “The Storm” by Virginia Bergin

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I read a lot, as you can imagine – astronomy, science reference and obviously a LOT of science fiction, too. Like any good SF reader I have my favourites, and am very loyal to Kim Stanley Robinson, Stephen Baxter and a handful of others, but I do try to stay open to new ideas, new genres and new authors. I also like a good YA novel too.

Hmmmm. “YA”… stands for “Young Adult”, obviously, but what do you think of when you see that term, in print, on a screen or on a bookshop shelf? In recent years the YA market has – I think – become saturated, and now the shelves in your local Waterstones, Borders or indie book shop will be groaning miserably under the weight of YA novels. Browse the covers and titles and you’ll probably come away with the idea that a lot of YA literature – and I do mean a LOT – is basically recycled versions of the “Twilight” or “Hunger Games” books; go take a look at the YA shelves in your local shop and marvel at the number of books written about lovesick teenagers pining for a werewolf, vampire, zombie or some other hunky, broody supernatural creature that hides a heart of gold beneath their soft fur/milk-white skin/disintegrating skin, which is itself hidden beneath a wardrobe of clothes One Direction would die to be photographed in. Personally I’m holding out for the story of a doomed love affair between a stroppy teenage girl and an undead unicorn prince, it can’t be long, surely…

And if a YA book isn’t about a doomed love affair between a mortal and an immortal, it is probably about a frustrated love affair between a boy and a girl living in a dystopian future where Adults Are Bad and only they can bring about a revolution. I came to “The Hunger Games” quite late, but read the whole series during a camping holiday, devouring each book like a hungry man let locked overnight in a chinese buffet, so thankfully I don’t have to read all the subsequent titles and series which were clearly “inspired” by those brilliant, brilliant books.

So, browsing the YA shelves can be a bit of a sigh-fest now, I think. Lots of the same.

But… every now and then you spot something on a shelf that looks… different, new, something shiny. And when you buy it, and read it, it’s so refreshing it’s like plunging your face into a bucket of cold water on a hot day. And that’s how I felt as I was reading “The Rain” by Virginia Bergin, after picking it up in a charity shop. I loved it so much I bought its sequel, “The Storm”, from my local Waterstones just two days after finishing it.

Without giving too much away – I HATE reviews which do that! – these two books are a post apocalypse tale, but with a unique and very, very clever twist. As the title of book 1 suggests, the end of the world isn’t brought about by plague, or nuclear war, but by something much more everyday and taken for granted – the rain. There’s something nasty in the rain, something very nasty, which causes the world to go to hell in an abandoned ALDI supermarket trolley.

And that is such a clever idea, worthy of Stephen Moffat himself. Think about it – what the hell are you supposed to do if the water falling from the sky is desperate to kill you? If your supply of water, which you’ve always taken for granted, is suddenly gone? The water in your kettle? Deadly. The water in your pipes? Death in liquid form. Those fluffy clouds starting to roll across the hills over there? Messengers of DEATH. What the hell do you do? You can fight zombies with well-placed head shots and kill a vampire (a proper vampire, not a Boy Band glitter-coated Cullenesque vampire). But how do you fight a shower?

And struggling to survive in that hell is a young girl, Ruby.

Now, let’s be honest, a lot of YA heroines are basically Katniss clones, kick-ass Mockingjay wannabes (and come on, there will only ever be one Katniss) who have almost superhuman powers, even if their hormone-soaked teenage hearts are just as fragile and confused as everyone else’s. Not our Ruby. Ruby is a real girl, and by that I mean a very believable, real person, with real faults, hang-ups and problems. I loved reading her and spending time with her. Virginia Bergin writes Ruby so sensitively, so accurately that she jumped off the page. And, refreshingly, Ruby speaks, and sounds, through her dialogue, like an actual teenager, not like an adult trying to fit in with kids.

You remember how all the “teenagers” in Dawson’s Creek (showing my age now, I know!) talked SO MUCH and used such clever, such oh so clever language that they could have been gifted interns in The West Wing instead of troubled kids in an achingly pretty American Town? Yeah, well Ruby is nothing like that. She’s a kid and talks like a kid, and acts like a kid too. She’s not always likeable – sometimes she really is that spoiled, moody, stroppy, hurtful, insensitive brat you see at a bus stop who seems destined to be on a Jeremy Kyle special one day – but then she makes you love her by doing something so nice, so sweet you feel guilty for being mad at/disappointed in her earlier.

Anyway, enough about Ruby, if I say much more I’ll spoil her for you, and I want you to have the joy of meeting her properly for yourself. The books are the story of Ruby’s journey through a post apocalypse world in search of her father, and her adventures along the way. Well, when I say her “adventures”, what I really mean is her long catalogue of encounters with people and situations which are so dire and so horrible by the end of “The Rain” I wanted to reach into the book, pull her out and sit her down in a quiet corner of MacDonalds, with a burger and a large Coke, just so she could have a bit of peace and quiet without anyone trying to kill or rip her off for half an hour.

In “The Rain” we follow Ruby’s journey immediately after The End of The World, as she travels through a deserted southern England looking for her father, and Bergin brings the landscapes vividly to life, painting a very realistic – and very, very British – picture of what’s left after civilisation collapses. In the sequel, “The Storm” , we follow Ruby as she is forced to confront some awful truths as civilisation, at least in England. attempts to recover from its Fall. Like most YA heroines she is forced to grow up, quickly, as agencies and individuals alike try to thwart her plans and/or kill her, and by the end of the sequel I was quite breathless, so much had happened to the poor girl. There are lots of shocks and surprises along the way, but it’s shame that the biggest revelation in the whole book, the pivotal point of the whole story, is absolutely RUINED by the artwork on the front cover! Which numptie editor agreed to that image being used? Seriously, River Song would have taken one look at that cover and blasted it, shouting “Spoilers!!!”

“The Rain” (which I should probably tell you is called “H20″ in the US… hmmm, brave move that… just sayin’…) and “The Storm” feature a lot of the YA staples – teen romance, annoying friends, adult hate figures – but they’re not just items included for the sake of it, to be shoe-horned into the plot and ticked off a Must Use checklist once used, they actually sit comfortably in the story and have a right to be there. And ok, so the ending of “The Storm” is rushed, and everything seemed to wrap up very suddenly, but maybe that was just because I was hoping there would be a third book in the series, and when I got to the end of “The Storm” I had to accept that there wouldn’t be…

Great read. “The Road” for this generation of stroppy, growing-up-too-quickly iPhone-owning teens, and a roller-coaster ride for those of us who occasionally like to forget how old we are and, putting aside our hard science fiction, dive into something different.

 

A galaxy far, far away…

I think it’s common knowledge by now that I am head over heels about my iOptron star tracker. It’s a fantastic piece of kit, and I feel like it has somehow given me a whole new sky. Ok, so I’m kicking myself – hard – that I didn’t buy it a couple of months earlier, so I could have used it to photograph Comet Lovejoy at its best, but without a TARDIS or a DeLorean there’s nothing I can do about that. I have it now, and it’s brilliant, and it’s letting me take images I have dreamed of taking for a long time.

Last Thursday night I went up to a (reasonably) dark sky site just outside Kendal with my friend and observing buddy Carol, a fellow member of the Eddington Astronomical Society of Kendal, and I got some really nice shots with the iOptron, like these…

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Comet Lovejoy, now drifting quietly through Cassiopeia as it heads back out into deep space… and it still has a pretty tail…

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The famous “Double Cluster”, not too far from Lovejoy and Cassiopeia actually…

And I took this image too – this is a crop from a stack of four images of varying exposures taken with my Canon 1100D, with my beloved 135mm “vintage” lens…

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That’s the spiral galaxy M101, which lies close to the end of the Great Bear’s tail and is a great favourite of many amateur and professional astrophotographers. I know, it doesn’t look much, just a small smudgy cloudy… thing… but that’s not the point. The point is, I took that image with my iOptron and my (below!) entry level DSLR and an old, battered 135mm M42 mount lens, from a car park beside a small church just outside Kendal, and I never thought I would. I am chuffed to bits with that image, because you can see the spiral arms quite clearly –

And again, many people reading this will be thinking “So what!” because a moment’s Google searching for images of M101 brings up literally thousands, taken from all around the world, and even the most basic “through a telescope” shot shows more detail than mine! But seriously, when that image popped into view when Deep Sky Stacker had done its thing, I was beyond chuffed. It really hit me that that little cream-in-coffee swirl glowing softly behind the curtain of glittering stars is a galaxy… a GALAXY for pity’s sake… and it’s a galaxy much bigger than our own Milky Way, perhaps as much as 70% bigger. That little smoky catherine wheel contains hundreds of billions of stars MORE than our own Milky Way…  Even more amazingly, it is over 21 million light years away… 21 MILLION… that means that the light which entered my humble little Canon that evening, moving down through my old faithful 135mm Soligor lens to register on the camera’s chip set off 21 million years earlier, when our ancestors were still shimmying up and down trees…

Looking at that image I can’t help but wonder… how many civilisations does that galaxy contain? How many of its stars are the “Sun” to a species that evolved to know its place in the universe? How many living, lush, green and blue worlds lie within those gracefully curving spiral arms? How advanced is the life there? Do empires spanning dozens of systems thrive there? Do gleaming starships plough through the epic voids between the scattered suns…? Do astronomers on its inhabited worlds, amateur and professional, see our own Milky Way as a tiny spiral smudge in the sky, and photograph it with their own telescopes, cameras and iOptrons, from their church car parks..?  I guess we’ll never know.

But I do know that I am very pleased with that image, and I think I can feel a bit of a quest coming on now… a quest to capture the Spring’s galaxies with my iOptron. I can’t compete with the Hubble, or with accomplished astrophotographers like the legendary Robert Gendler, but I can hopefully make some pretty pictures of my own :-)

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Looking back at the eclipse…

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( Image: Carol Grayson, Eddington Astronomical Society of Kendal )

So, that’s it then, after all the build-up and anticipation, the eclipse is over, it’s history, the long-awaited Big Day came and went. Here in Kendal, somewhat disappointingly, we only caught brief glimpses of the eclipsed Sun through the clouds, but that’s more than many people saw, and as you can see from Carol Grayson’s photo at the top there it did look gorgeous when we were allowed to see it by the Cumbrian weather. Of course, the day before the eclipse the Sun was splitting the trees, it was so sunny and hot, and the day after the eclipse was glorious too, as is today. In fact, not half an hour after the eclipse finished the clouds above Kendal tore open and the Sun blazed above The Auld Grey Town for the rest of the day… Not fair, just not fair.

But that’s astronomy for you, at least, astronomy in Cumbria. You get used to it –

Actually no, you don’t. Every meteor shower missed, every naked eye comet that slips away without being enjoyed, every display of the northern lights which rages unseen behind the thick, foul grey hurts. It hurts. It feels like a cruel injustice, especially when you see everyone else’s glorious images on Spaceweather.com. You never get used to it.

Seeing anything exciting “up there” in the Cumbrian Sky is such a challenge, and we beat the weather so rarely, that if you don’t want to go mad, or turn into a twisted, bitter astronomical Gollum, hating others for their better lives, you learn to take pleasure – or to try and take pleasure – in the success of others, so I am genuinely pleased that such a large number of people across the UK were able to see the eclipse, or at least some part of it –

– and I am absolutely furious that some children were actually banned from watching it from their schools, and were instead forced to “enjoy” the spectacle inside, on TV.

No, I’m not joking. In 2015, when eclipse-watching safety advice is available to anyone, for free, with a moment’s searching on Google, when most towns and cities have at least one astronomical society, some children were actually banned from watching the eclipse outside. It beggars belief.

Think I’m making this up? Think this is just one of those “urban myths” which pop up at times like this? Unfortunately, no.

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You might expect such a thing in countries or in societies which are more superstitious or religious. You might expect such a thing in places where religious zealots and science-hating, black flag-waving fanatics rule the population with guns and knives. You absolutely wouldn’t expect it in a country that is science savvy, the country of Patrick Moore, Brian Cox, Sir Isaac Newton, the Royal Observatory and Jodrell Bank.

I know schools have to be very careful with their pupils’ safety, they have an extremely serious responsibility to ensure it. And maybe, being charitable, some of the people involved did believe they were doing the right thing. But they were wrong. Preventing kids from viewing this eclipse was a huge mistake.

Here in Kendal we lost count of how many kids were brought down to watch the eclipse by their parents, and there were even groups FROM schools which were brought along by their teachers to ensure they were able to enjoy it safely. One Kendal school basically emptied, and dozens of its pupils walked down to watch the eclipse with us. Another school, from faraway Carlisle, packed a coach with kids and sent them down to Kendal to watch it with us.

However, elsewhere – and I’ve read reports of this happening in Devon, Wales, London and elsewhere – idiotic bloody Council pen-pushers and School Governers stopped excited, curious kids from watching the amazing eclipse, and locked them indoors and made them watch it on TV. One headmaster did it because he was panicking about “cultural and religious problems”. Other teachers clearly were just too bone effing idle to do a *little* research about safe ways to watch it, or couldn’t be arsed to contact their local astronomical society to ask them for help and advise. Shame on all of them. They stopped those poor kids from experiencing something magical, something which they would have remembered for the rest of their lives. It’s disgusting.

girl looking at computer monitor

For pity’s sake, we’re always being told by talking heads on TV how kids spend too *much* time staring at screens, how they’re living their lives staring at phone, tablet and TV screens instead of getting out into the real world to enjoy real life, and then when one of nature’s most wonderful events came along, and dropped on our doorstep, with not weeks or even months but YEARS of notice, offering schools and teachers a golden opportunity to show kids the mechanical workings of the solar system, to engage with science, to unplug from the Matrix and get out into the real world, some stupid idiots wasted it.

“Not having enough time to prepare” is nonsense – the exact date and time of this eclipse had been known about for many years, and many astronomical societies were organising and promoting observing events for weeks, even months beforehand. Likewise,  “no safety advice was available” is rubbish too – many astronomical bodies put safety advice online months in advice, as did well known astronomers, professional science writers and bloggers. Any teacher who could be bothered to do a Google search for “Eclipse+safety” would have been shown a list of web pages full of excellent advice. Try it for yourself, now, and you’ll see what I mean. The Society for Popular Astronomy produced fantastic FREE resources, including information sheets, web pages and even videos, explaining exactly how to watch the eclipse safely. Up and down the many country astronomical societies did the same, and/or organised public viewing events. Any that didn’t, and didn’t have a really good excuse, should be ashamed of themselves too; it was our responsibility to ensure as many people as possible saw and enjoyed the event. Seriously, get out of your chairs, step away from the projector and Get Out There And Show People Stuff!!

I know countless schools went to great lengths to make sure their kids were able to watch and enjoy the eclipse, and congratulations to them, because many of those kids will have had an existing interest in science deepened, and other kids will have been excited by science for the first time. Who knows how many of the children who watched Friday morning’s eclipse will go on to pursue astronomy as a hobby, or become involved in some other branch of science?

But others were denied that. And as the rest of the country celebrated a wonderful event they were locked inside, watching it on TV. That makes me furious, it really does.

There won’t be another solar eclipse visible in the UK until 2026, by which time all the kids who missed Friday’s spectacle will have left school, so they really did miss a once in a lifetime opportunity. But although there aren’t any more eclipses for many years, on May 9th next year there will be another event, involving the Sun, which will be observable from across the UK – a Transit of Mercury.

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(Image: Wikipedia)

On that day Mercury will appear to cross the face of the Sun as seen from Earth, which is known as a “Transit”. Silhouetted against the Sun, Mercury will appear as a tiny black dot on projected images of the Sun, or through telescopes fitted with filters. (It will be too small to see through eclipse glasses or with pinhole projectors – or colanders!) The event will take many hours, most of the day in fact beginning at 11am and ending at 5pm, so there will be no “maximum moment” to see or miss, as there was with the eclipse.

We have more than a year to prepare for this; more than a year to make sure that no schoolkids miss it; more than a year to ensure that parents, teachers, Governors, Council officials and everyone else knows how to help the kids under their care to watch the Transit safely and enjoy it.

Let’s make sure that next May no boy or girl who wants to see something amazing in the sky is forced to watch it on TV.

ROSETTA update

I’ve had a few people asking me why I’ve stopped blogging about ROSETTA and Comet 67P. Well, it’s mainly because I’ve been horrendously busy getting ready for the solar eclipse on March 20th – we held a big event here in Kendal for that, and although cloud meant we only got a few brief glimpses of the Sun it was still a very enjoyable morning – and have been snowed under with editing work too, but also, to be honest, because I’ve just grown sick and weary of waiting for new images, or at least new images worth sitting down and writing about.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m still a huge fan and supporter of the mission, and am very grateful to the NAVCAM team for continuing to release images of the nucleus of Comet 67 waking up. Every day they release into the wild a new image showing jets and plumes and streamers of material shooting off the thawing nucleus, and it’s a privilege to be able to see and show others breathtaking pictures like these most recent ones…

Comet_on_14_March_2015_b_NavCam b Comet_on_14_March_2015_NavCam

As I’ve said here before, the NAVCAM images essentially *are* the ROSETTA mission for the public, and for Outreachers and educators like me, so, again, thank you NAVCAM team, your tireless efforts to promote and support the ROSETTA mission are greatly appreciated.

But where are the OSIRIS images? The OSIRIS team is still holding those pictures hostage, and it’s getting a bit pathetic now to be honest. There have been a few big science conferences recently, at which OSIRIS images have been shown, but none have been released to the public for ages. It’s now over a month since the Feb 14th 6km fly-past of 67P by ROSETTA and although one image was released after that by the OSIRIS team it was just one image, out of how many that were taken? I really had thought we would have seen some more images taken during that close encounter by the OSIRIS camera by now, but no, like so many others they’re still being kept under lock and key by the OSIRIS team and its PI.

feb 14 osiris

Their worries about having their scientific results stolen by others are well known and well-documented now, and I understand their concerns, but come on… if they’re showing images at conferences, to roomfuls of their competition and to journalists, are they really right to be so paranoid about releasing images to the public? I don’t buy it, not for a moment. I have no doubt that they could release a few choice images without risking their science, none at all. They just don’t want to.

Well, you know what? Whatever. If they want to drag ESA’s image –  which has made such huge strides recently – back to the Dark Ages, when every image taken by an ESA probe was jealously horded like a dragon’s gold, that’s up to them. If they want to reinforce the public’s opinion that scientists are cold boffins who think their work is too complicated for “normal” people to understand, or even be shared with, that’s up to them. If they want people to compare and contrast NASA’s image release policy with theirs, that’s up to them. If they want to hide behind their closed doors, looking at their precious images in private, knowing but not caring that people out here who paid for those images to be taken in the first place are desperate to see them, that’s up to them.

For me now, as for many people I’m sure, the NAVCAM images are the ROSETTA mission, and the OSIRIS images are anomalies which sometimes crop up, cause a brief flurry of excitement, and are then gone again.

I used to get angry about this, but not any more.I just think it’s sad that in this amazing year, at this thrilling time, when we are seeing Ceres close-up for the first time, and when we are preparing to fly past Pluto for the first time, when the public are more engaged with space exploration, more excited by it than they have been for years, when Europe has a beyond-incredible mission to explore a comet, the OSIRIS team is refusing to join the party.

Oh well, it’s their loss.

Meanwhile, 67P is warming up nicely, so keep checking back here for more of those gorgeous NAVCAM images :-)

Book review: “Living Among Giants” by Michael Carroll

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Take even a quick look at my higgledypiggledy book shelves over there and you’ll realise I’m a big fan of books which combine good, hard science with speculation about the future. I have lots of them, probably dozens of them, some new, some old, and time and time again I find myself leafing through them and, through their fascinating text and beautiful space art, exploring the fantastic worlds Out There in our solar system and beyond. I have books containing the space art of such masters as Don Davis, David Hardy, William Hartmann and Pamela Lee, to name just a few, and cherish them.

Most of the books I have are, to be fair, pretty similar, and they show, mostly, the same places. They are full of gorgeous artists impressions of future astronauts exploring or settling the worlds closest to us, The Moon, Mars, maybe the moons of Jupiter at a stretch, which makes sense as they’re the places we have a chance of getting to in the relatively near future. So I have grown up with seeing astronauts standing on the edge of Valles Marineris and peering down at the clouds rolling across its floor far below, or kneeling beside antique 20th century landers covered in dust; I have drooled over countless paintings of settlements and research outposts on the Moon; I have smiled wistfully at paintings of men and women standing on Io and watching one of its sulphur volcanoes vomiting into the sky… I love them all, and when a new book comes out I devour that too, but even I have to admit that, sometimes, just sometimes, it would be nice to “go” somewhere new, somewhere different…

So when I read that one of my very favourite space artists, Michael Carroll, had written a book which offered readers a travel guide to the worlds and moons of the outer solar system, the off the beaten track worlds and moons which lie beyond Jupiter, I was intrigued and knew I had to read it. It struck me as quite a brave and challenging thing to do because, I think it’s fair to say, many… most, perhaps… space enthusiasts and amateur astronomers think that once you get past Saturn it’s all a bit, well, boring out there. They have their fans, of course – people who find beauty in their rushing winds and fish tank grit rings – but to the rest of us Uranus and Neptune are, basically, just big bland blue-green balls, with a few fairly interesting moons going around them –

Oh come on now, don’t look at me like that. Spare me your indignation and be honest with yourself: that’s how many of us think of them. We think so little of them that even when they’re in the sky we don’t swing our telescopes towards them but look at other things in the sky again, for the gazillionth time…

But the truth is the outer solar system is, effectively, a neglected second solar system. Once you fly past Jupiter and Saturn, and set out across that enormous gulf of space beyond them, you are heading towards a host of worlds and moons of incredible variety and a beauty all of their own, and in his new book Michael Carroll takes us by the hand on a tour of many of them, boldly suggesting that in the future human explorers will call them home, and find their landscapes, features and scenery every bit as fascinating and beautiful as those on Mars, the Moon and the Galilean Satellites.

And so, in this book we are thrust far into the future – an optimistic future with no budget constraints or idiot, short-sighted politicians strangling the spirit of human endeavour or the drive to explore – when there are brave, wide-eyed men and women living and working far, far beyond the often yawningly-familiar worn-down mountains of the Moon and the rust-red plains of Mars. Dipping into their history and the literature they have inspired Carroll explains in detail the science behind the atmospheres of the gas and ice giants, and the startlingly varied landscapes and geology of their moons, but in such an approachable way reading this book is like listening to a series of lectures by a scientist who is also a great communicator and public speaker. I learned a lot as I read this book, and it gave me a much deeper appreciation of the work of the planetary geologists

But for me the main appeal of the book is its beautiful illustrations. (I know, I’m shallow, guilty as charged!) As I said before Michael Carroll is one of my favourite space artists, and has been ever since I first came across his work in the pages of the astronomy magazines I bought when I was just starting out in the hobby, and so any book which features new paintings by him is always going to be forced into one of the few remaining gaps on those shelves, but this one is there by merit, not through loyalty, because some of the illustrations in it are wonderfully evocative and inspiring. P102 – a holiday resort cluster of domes on the equatorial ride of Iapetus; P128 – an astronaut standing on the shore of Kraken Mare, one of Titan’s methane seas, watching surf-edged waves creeping slowly up the shore; P152 – tourists posing for photos on the “steep walled cliffs at the junction of Korrigan and Pixie Chasmas” on Uranus’ moon Ariel…

My favourite of all is probably this one, showing a futuristic spacecraft skimming over Saturn’s glittering rings, heading for the tall, icy structures which jut up from it…

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…but look what they did with it! They split it between two pages!! Which numptie thought THAT was a good idea???

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One thing I really love about Carroll’s art is it is natural, and human and warm. He is an artist, not an illustrator. In one of the prefaces he states, proudly, that although a few incorporated modern digital techniques, he actually painted most of his illustrations in the book the old fashioned way, on canvas, with paint, and that is a joy. It makes such a difference. For example, today, just by coincidence, as I was killing time in my local bookstore I came across a new Star Trek book, an update of the old “Ships of The Line” book which features many of the beloved starships and spaceships from Star Trek’s series and films. And yes the pictures in it were all very striking, but they were almost all digital creations, and as clever as they were, many of them were just so artificial-looking, so cold, that they could have been created by robots. Too clean, too sharp, too artificial. But when you look at paintings like this, in “Living Among Giants”…

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…you can tell a person, a living, breathing human being made it. He paints with the same love and human touch as people like Pamela Lee and the vastly under-rated Lucy West-Binnall (not heard of her? Google her right now, you can thank me later!). I have no doubt that if Michael Carroll went into space he would take an easel, a canvas and a box of paints with him and would be out of the airlock, set up and painting something before his lander’s engines had even turned off.

And you know what? I don’t care that it’s unlikely the future shown in the book will ever materialise, that’s not the point. The point is, this book will lift you off the face of our troubled home planet and lead you by the hand to some of the incredible worlds which lie out there, opening your eyes, and your mind, to the wonder and beauty which exist far from home.

Ok, so, to summarise, why should you buy this book? Well, here’s a contents checklist… Serious science? Check. Useful and educational diagrams? Check. History of astronomy and space exploration? Check. Beginners course in geology and comparative planetology? Check. Gorgeous space art? Check.

Another winner, Mr Carroll.

What’s next? :-)

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LIVING AMONG GIANTS

“Exploring and Settling The Outer Solar System”

Springer

ISBN: 978-3-319-10673-1

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