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Some thoughts on the new COSMOS

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So, I finally got around to watching ep1 of the reboot of COSMOS.

First impressions? Well, it looks absolutely *gorgeous*, some really beautiful images and SFX are in there which really take the viewer to the places featured. Personally I don’t mind the “Ship of the Imagination”, it does the job, getting NdGT from A to B in style, even if on the outside it is a bit like something left on the cutting room floor when they were shooting “The Phantom Menace”…

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…and the inside looks like the bridge of Picard’s first Enterprise…

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Enough about the pretty pictures! What about the important stuff, the science? Well, the science was pretty good too – suitably lightweight for a modern science TV series (let’s not kid ourselves that this new COSMOS is going to be an exhaustive, in depth science journey, ok? It’s a popular science program, for a mass audience, and that’s absolutely fine) and apart from a few “No! That’s wrong!” moments – i.e. the flight through the asteroid belt, which was totally unrealistic, with huge spinning rocks tumbling everywhere, just like the classic scene from “The Empire Strikes Back” – it was comprehensive and detailed enough to be educational and stimulating. This is a series which WILL inspire a new generation, and will send many people, young and old, out into their gardens to look at the sky with new eyes.

Having said that, I *hate* the style of the animation, which really looks cheap and cheapens the overall feel of the show. Lots of discussion on FB and elsewhere re the accuracy of Giordano Bruno’s story, but what struck me was that it looked so clompy and dull it really took something away from the show, but that could just be me, others probably loved it.

My main problem with it – not really a problem, I suppose, more of a personal meh – is the presenter, Neil deGrasee Tyson. I know, I know, he’s a great communicator, he’s beloved amongst US science types, he’s got a voice that a Jedi Knight would kill for but… but… well, there didn’t seem to be any joy about him as he travelled around the universe. He went through the first episode communicating well, saying all the right things, giving the facts and figures, but it felt a bit, well, cold, detached. Carl Sagan’s face shone with the golden light of joy and wonder in the original COSMOS, he came across as someone utterly infatuated with the universe, as bewitched by the beauty of nebulae and galaxies as Romeo was by Juliet. Watching him, originally all those years ago on TV and more recently on the DVDs, I found myself smiling at his child-like crush on the cosmos. That’s what made the original series so poetic for me – I was being led by the hand, across the universe, across time and space, by someone who felt the beauty of the universe as a physical thing, like warm summer rain on his face. Watching Tyson I just didn’t get that. Maybe that just wasn’t possible – how the hell do you follow Carl Sagan – and maybe he’ll warm up in future episodes. Tyson’s personal tributes to and reminiscences of Carl were moving and heartfelt, I thought.

So, criticisms aside, I think the new COSMOS is something worthy of support from everyone “into” astronomy and space exploration. It will, I have no doubt, take its viewers on a fascinating and greatly enjoyable trip, and inspire many of them to look at the sky and learn more about astronomy and the universe around them. And let’s be honest: at a time when the TV channels are shamelessly featuring and groaning under the weight of crap about “Ancient Aliens”, UFOs, and Bigfoot, and Kim Kardashian’s arse is worshipped like a 21st century god, any big budget, high profile astronomy series needs to be supported and promoted as much as possible. We owe that to the kids who want to know what “that star” is called. We owe that to the teachers struggling to teach their classes about evolution and science in the face of Creationist bullshit. We owe that to the amateur astronomer stood in their garden at midnight, peering into their telescope eyepiece at the tiny smudge of a comet that only a few dozen people will ever see. We owe it to Carl, who, had been alive today, would surely be appalled and enraged by the relentless pitchfork- and flaming torch carrying march of the anti-science army across the US and the globe.

Watch COSMOS. Enjoy it for what it is and don’t mourn its lost opportunities and mistakes too much. The alternative is another series about Nibiru, or lost alien civilisations, or angels…

A comet sails up the Milky Way…

Comets are found almost daily now, there are so many automated searches and amateur astronomers sweeping and scanning the sky for them. We all live in hope of a Great Comet being discovered – one which will be big and bright to the naked eye in the sky, you know, like ISON looked like it was going to be but in the end didn’t? – but the vast majority of comets discovered are destined to never get past the “small, dim smudge in a telescope eyepiece” stage. Which is fine; they’re all worth looking for and observing scientifically, as each one tells us something new and fascinating about comets.

Occasionally though, one of these comets offers us a little “something extra”, and that’s the case with newly-discovered “Comet Jacques”, or C/2014 E2 to give it its full title. Here’s one of the most recent images of it, showing it already has a coma…

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Comet C/2014 E2 Jacques photographed from Siding Spring Observatory on March 14, 2014. Credit: Rolando Ligustri

Comet Jacques was discovered on March 13th, and calculations of its orbit suggest it will be well placed for southern hemisphere observers, and might become a binocular object for northern hemisphere observers in late July too, when it will be here…

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By August 12th, as we’re all looking forward to the annual Perseid meteor shower, Jacques will be here – IN Perseus, where the meteors will come from…

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How bright will it get? Don’t know. It’s currently at around magnitude 11, which is faint, i.e. need-a-telescope-to-see-it faint, but it will get brighter as it closes in on the Sun and the Earth too, so by August it could well be a binocular comet. We’ll just have to wait and see.

But there are two very interesting things about Comet Jacques. Firstly, it’s path around the Sun will take it quite close to Venus. How close is “quite”? Well, just over 8 million miles away. That’s a long, long way to us here on Earth – we’re used to thinking places a hundred miles apart are a long way apart – but in astronomical terms that’s quite a close approach.

Of course, this means that the nutters and fruit loops who last year so confidently and fervently predicted Comet ISON would hit Mars or knock it out of orbit as it passed the Red Planet are going to crawl out from under their stones again and make the same pathetic Get A Life predictions for Jacques in relation to Venus, but they’ll be talking the same BS as always, so please try your best to ignore them. I know it’s hard, they’re everywhere, infesting Forums and Twitter and Facebook like rats in a sewer, and I can already imagine the dribbling lunatics, fake scientists and ranting Pastors declaring on their YouTube channels that the comet will interact magnetically/electrically with Venus, or envelop it in its poisonous coma, or send it spinning towards Earth… some will undoubtedly say that Jacques is “Nibiru”, sigh… but when Jacques sails harmlessly past Venus without anything happening they’ll all go quiet again and forget they ever said anything and move on to the next thing.

The other interesting thing is Comet Jacques’ path across the sky. Look…

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The comet is going to move right along the Milky Way, like a boat sailing up a river. How cute is that? Of course, this isn’t such good news for comet-watchers and imagers, who will be looking for a faint comet amongst the star clouds of the Milky Way, but I bet astro-imagers like Damian Peach will still get some gorgeous pictures..!

If you’d like to read more about this comet, there’s a brilliant article on it over on Universe Today: