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Behold, Lutetia..!

In my previous post I said that yesterday was going to be a “big” day for the European Space Agency. Well, I’m happy to report that it wasn’t just ‘big’, it was triumphant! The close encounter of asteroid “Lutetia” by ESA’s unmanned spaceprobe went, it seems, without a hitch, and the probe took some truly stunning images during its screaming-fast flyby, which ESA released VERY quickly, and are now being drooled over by professional planetary scientists and armchair astronomers all around the world, and worked on by space exploration enthusiasts like myself in order to create different versions of those images.

To re-cap: Lutetia is a great, big, ugly chunk of rock which orbits the Sun a loooooong way away from Earth. ESA was interested in imaging it because, at more than 100km long, it is the largest asteroid ever visited and studied by a spaceprobe. Its composition was unclear, too, making it a very tasty and tempting target for ROSETTA as it sped through the solar system, en-route to its encounter with a comet in the year 2014… Yesterday ROSETTA flew past Lutetia, and turned its battery of cameras and instruments on the huge space rock as it passed. The plan was for it to take lots of photos, some at very high resolution, and then beam those images back to Earth. After some processing by ESA they would then be postd online for everyone to enjoy and be amazed by…

Of course, plans can go wrong, and that’s especially true for spaceprobe encounters with objects “out there”. Cameras can fail, tracking systems can go wrong, computers can just shut down and go into “Safe Mode” right at the very ******* moment they’re needed most, meaning the data is lost, the images are never taken, and the encounter is wasted and ruined. So there were a lot of white knuckles at ESA yesterday as the ROSETTA team waited to hear back from their spaceprobe…

None of those things happened yesterday, the encounter went off without a hitch and the data streamed back to Earth exactly as planned, so today we ALL have startling and stunning portraits of a new world to enjoy and celebrate! 🙂

Okay, here’s one of the first images to come back…

See? Already quite a bit of detail can be seen… but the quality got better…

… until finally we saw this

Well, not quite that. I’ve sharpened it up a bit and played about with the contrast and levels a bit, just to bring out the surface detail more, and to show just how cratered Lutetia’s surface is. That surface has also got something else, something we didn’t expect to see…


Now, they’re interesting..! They look very familiar.. we’ve seen something like that before, haven’t we..?

That’s Mars’ moon, Phobos, and we’ve known for many years now, since the 1970s in fact, that it has grooves on its surface. One of the theories about their origin was that the moon was struck by pieces of rock from Mars itself, blasted off the planet by an asteroid impact, but other scientists disagreed, saying this wasn’t very likely. Now we’ve seen something very similar here at Lutetia, which doesn’t orbit anything, so that particular Phobosian theory might well lose some more supporters. Or maybe these grooves were caused by Lutetia being struck by ejecta from some collision out in the dark depths of the solar system? All fascinating questions…

Here are some other views of Lutetia taken during the encounter yesterday…

That’s the asteroid seen as a crescent…

But this is a breathtaking picture… you’ll have to click on it to enlarge it if you want to see why…

Can you see that? Up at the top there? That’s SATURN, caught in the same field of view..!

I don’t know who programmed the probe’s camera to take that particular image, but well done whoever it was, that’s one of the best ESA images ever.

So, lots of images came back, and inevitably busybodies like myself load them up into Photoshop and mess about with them, either to bring out details not seen very well in the originals (like the grooves), or just make something a little “different” out of them. That’s what I’ve done here with one of the images – sharpened it, boosted the contrast, then added colour (FALSE colour, not suggesting it’s accurate for a  moment, ok?!) and some highlights, to create this informal, totally unscientific and purely aesthetically-pleasing portrait of Lutetia… (click to enlarge, as usual)

Just my own personal take on the encounter. I hope some of you like it.

Beautiful pictures, I’m sure you’ll agree. And many, many congratulations to ESA for releasing them so quickly. I’ve criticised ESA’s image release policy in the past, very severely and angrily, and with good reason, I still feel. But they did a fantastic job this time, really let people “in” on the excitement of the encounter and allowed us all to see the images quickly, so well done to everyone involved.

Inevitably some people will moan about how “ridiculous” it is to spend “vast amounts of money “taking pictures of stupid rocks” when there are “so many problems here on Earth” or when “there’s so little money about”. That’s completely missing the point. ESA and NASA don’t fill their rockets with money and then launch them into space; the money spent on missions like ROSETTA, and the Mars rovers, and CASSINI,  is spent HERE ON EARTH, in wages to the scientists, technicians, designers and engineers involved in the projects. People have to design these spacecraft, then build them, then fly them. They have to collect and then make sense of the data, then release it to the world. Those people are paid for that, then they use that money to buy the cars, houses, chinese takeaways and Pot Noodles that make the economy go round. Taxes come from their wages. School fees come from their wages. ALL the money spent “on space” is spent down here, on Earth.

And come on, this past month we’ve seen the footballers of the World Cup on our TV screens. The highest level players are paid many tens of thousands of pounds a week – perhaps even a hundred thousand pounds a week – for kicking a ball about… in England’s case, very badly and half-heartedly. yet no-one moans about that.

Equally no-one moans about the staggering cost of Hollywood blockbusters. A big budget movie, like the new Shrek or Toy Story movies, can cost over a hundred million dollars now… a hundred MILLION! How many hospitals could be built for that? How many schools? How many hospices? Yet no-one grumbles about that as they settle into their seat, put their hands into their tub of popcorn and put on their 3D glasses, do they? No, because that money has been spent on something they enjoy, so it’s okay.

So, anyone who grumbles to me about the cost of ROSETTA’s mission, or the cost of these stunning images, had better be a saint, had better have given every penny they’ve earned to charity, because if they’ve ever bought a pizza or an expensive pair of shoes, or a lipstick or a copy of “Hello” or “OK”, or been to see “Avatar” or “Sex In The City 2”, or have a subscription to Sky Sports to let them watch the football, then they’re a hypocrite, because they could have donated the cost of those things to Save The Children, or Barnados, or some other charity but chose not to.

So please, no-one lecture me about money being “wasted” in space. The money spent “on space” has shown us the wonders of the solar system, helped us understand our place in the universe and shown us a possible, bright future. And if those achievements are too airy-fairy for you, too “spaceprobe-huggy”, then money spent “on space” has also taught us about global warming, helps us predict weather and plan when to plant and harvest crops, and has given us the ability to watch the football on satellite TV.

Some people still won’t be convinced, they’ll still moan and groan about these pictures. But you know what? And it’s not very “PC” of me to say this, but Stuff Them. I really don’t care if they disapprove, because if they really feel that way, if they really are that small-minded, if their horizons really are that close, then these images simply aren’t for them, and they actually don’t deserve them, because they can’t appreciate them or their significance. They can’t see that these images of Lutetia are important because they represent a leap forwards in knowledge, which is a very precious thing. This time yesterday, as ROSETTA was closing-in on Lutetia, the asteroid was just, essentially, a name, a word. It had never been glimpsed as anything more than a point of light in a telescope’s field of view. Today, Lutetia isn’t a word, it’s a world, a place with craters and pits, ridges and ravines that, one day, people will travel to, land on and walk upon. Just think about that. One day, men and women from Earth will stand on Lutetia and look back at this planet and feel awe for the achievement of ROSETTA and her team, and wonder what it must have been like for us, you and me, to be the first people to see her battered, cratered surface, all those years ago. For them, ROSETTA’s images, which are so fresh for us today, will be part of their history.

So, when you look at these images, you’re looking at pictures that are every bit as important as the first images of Yosemite Valley, taken by Charles Leander Weed in 1859, or the first pictures ever taken of Antarctica, or Everest or the ocean floor. They’re not pictures of something, they’re portarits of somewhere, somewhere new, proof that the desire, the need to explore, and see new places, is etched into our DNA like petroglyphs on a canyon wall.

That has to be something to celebrate!


7 Responses

  1. Why you are that worked up about bunch of hipocrites?

  2. The grooves could have been caused by “tidal stress” i.e. when an object orbits too close to a much larger body, it’s surface is stressed. This is believed by some (including yours truly) to be the cause for the grooves on Phobos.
    I enjoy your blog. Keep up the good work.
    July 11, 2010

  3. I wonder how many others grabbed a copy of the close-approach Lutetia image and applied their own post-processing? I was at it as soon as ESA released the image… also tweaked levels, did some highlight and shadow recovery, upped contrast and did some motion and out-of-focus blur removal to pull more detail out – would like to get my hands on a .TIF rather than a .JPG – can’t be sure if the image artefacts I’ve noticed are inherent or from lossy compression.

  4. ….and I hope that those men and women will still know your name and words.



  5. […] own take on the Lutetia imagery is here. See this ESA news release for still more imagery. But the image I like best is one taken by the […]

  6. Lines can be formed by formation stresses, too, which are not spherically symmetric. Seems unlikely this asteroid formed orbiting a planet, then got liberated.

  7. The photo with Saturn in the background is absolutely stunning!

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