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Comet Kerfuffle #2

And so, exactly seven days after they had last gathered, members of the “Science Interested Community” assembled around the Great Tree of Twitter, eager to hear the latest word from the ESA Rosetta probe. For seven days their frustration had been great, as they recalled how, years earlier, when the Collectors had gone from house to house, demanding taxes to help pay for the construction of their great machine of exploration, they had assumed they would be allowed to fly alongside it, at least in their imaginations, seeing all the magical images it took of those faraway, exotic worlds in their names and at their expense. But that had not come to pass. Only a handful of pictures had been given to them over the years, and those had been handed over with such obvious and great reluctance that their frustration had risen and risen…

 

Finally, after what seemed like an age, a rider appeared in the distance, on the very edge of town, clip-clopping towards them slowly, a scroll clutched in their hand. Dismounting skilfully, the finely-dressed rider strode boldly through the murmuring, restless crowds, pushing through groups of men dressed in faded MER t-shirts, past knots of women with unwashed hair tucked under threadbare Pathfinder caps, until they reached the base of the tree where, throwing back her silk hood, she addressed them…

 

“Hear me, good people of the Science Interested Community”, she said loudly, “for I bring great news from Castle ESA. Having heard your anguished pleas and cries, the Great and Merciful Lord OSIRIS has agreed that, from this very day, images taken by the Rosetta navcams will be made available to you. Daily!”

 

A ripple of excitement and disbelief passed through the crowd. Could it be true? Had Great OSIRIS really heard their pleas..?
“Furthermore,” the rider continued, scanning the crowd for troublemakers, “as promised, I bring with me a new and Wondrous Image from the Great Lord OSIRIS himself, which I will now post on the Tree of Twitter for you all to see.” With that she walked the last few feet to the tree, reached out with her steady hand and slapped the scroll against the rough bark. “But be aware, everyone gathered here,” she warned, turning to face the crowd once more, her voice now low and dark, “this Wondrous Image is posted on the condition that no-one tampers with or corrupts it, or uses the dark arts of image processing, GIMP sorcery or wavelet witchcraft of any kind to enhance it and bring out any details not immediately obvious. Such wicked practices would surely anger the Great Lord. And…” She let the warning trail off, the threat obvious but unspoken. Finally she hammered a spike through the scroll and into the body of the tree, leaving the parchment hanging from it like a pennant.
“Come forth, and marvel at the comet!” she called, raising her hands to the sky and the crowd cheered, surging forwards, each man, woman and child desperate to see what was on the scroll. And although it was little more than three vaguely-mottled white shapes, on a black background, all who saw it agreed the new image truly was Wondrous!
Smiling, the rider remounted her horse and turned its nose back towards the castle, leaving the good people of the Science Interested Community to their simple pleasures…

——————————————————————————————————–

Ok, so that’s a bit silly… alright, it’s very silly… but that’s what it actually felt like on Thursday when the latest image of Comet 67P was released by the European Space Agency. It felt like a little fragment of Christmas had broken off the main body and fallen to Earth. A new image of 67P! With tantalising hints of detail on its still-blurry surface! And a promise of daily navcam image releases too! Were we dreaming? Had the heatwave baked our brains? No! Look at this…!

 

Comet_on_20_July_2014

 

Gorgeous, isn’t it? 🙂 Hmmm… I wonder…

 

Comet_on_20_July_2014 b2

 

The release of that latest OSIRIS image of 67P came at the end of what can best be described as an “interesting” week for space enthusiasts and scientists following or involved in the Rosetta mission. The publication of an open letter to ESA from a group of German space enthusiasts, requesting more images from the OSIROS cameras, attracted a lot of attention, and prompted me to write my own blog post making a similar appeal. When Emily Lakdawalla from The Planetary Society asked if she could use my blog post on the Society’s blog I said yes with no hesitation, eager for as many people as possible to be made aware of the situation re the images from Rosetta – or the situation as I understood it anyway. Reaction to my blog was a mixture of enthusiastic agreement (from fellow space enthusiasts) and angry indignation (from scientists), and a mixture of both. I was happy with every comment. After all, it meant the issue was out in the open more than before: the elephant which has been sitting in the middle of the room at ESOC could not be ignored any longer, and a big bright spotlight was now shining right in its face.

 
And although a week after writing my original post I am now much better informed about “The Situation” at ESA re image release, which I’ll try and cut down to basics shortly, and I accept I was unfairly harsh on ESA as an organisation, my own personal view has not changed, not one bit. I firmly believe that more of the images being taken of Comet 67P by Rosetta should be being released, and that it is fundamentally wrong to horde them as they are being horded.

 
So what IS “The Situation”?

 
Well, after a week of reading feedback – public blog comments, Tweets, FB posts etc – from people with either personal involvement in or first hand knowledge of the background to this issue, one thing is clear: the lack of images from Rosetta is not ESA’s fault, and by ESA I mean ESA as a whole, the organisation. In fact, ESA the organisation has very little control over the amount of Rosetta images put out in their name. They are basically given images of the comet by the scientists and teams behind the cameras taking those images, and allowed to release them into the wild, when, and only when, those people say. Because of contracts apparently drawn up just after the Big Bang and signed in blood, ESA has no power to demand more images from the scientists taking the pictures with the cameras onboard Rosetta, and has to take what they’re given. So even if they wanted to release more images – and it’s pretty clear from their enthusiastic Outreach efforts that they do, they really do – they couldn’t. Their hands are tied up in so much historical red tape their fingers are turning blue from lack of circulation. So, no matter how much I or other space enthusiasts may want them to, ESA can’t release any more pictures taken by OSIRIS, the kick-ass high resolution OSIRIS cameras which are returning the best images of the comet, because they are controlled by individual scientists and their organisations.

 
So is that it then? End of the story? Take what you’re given, and be glad of it?

 
“No,” as Yoda told Obi Wan Kenobi, “There is another…”

 
Rosetta is also carrying a smaller camera, the Navcam, which – with a lower resolution and a wider angle view than OSIRIS – is kind of like a spotter ‘scope on an amateur astronomer’s telescope. ESA does control that camera, and has the right to release images taken by it, but so far they have chosen not to, apparently for fear of upsetting the teams behind OSIRIS, who, it has been suggested by several people, might have been annoyed by the possibility of Navcam images “scooping them”, revealing something amazing or just interesting on the comet before they had a chance to target it – and then show it – with their cameras. So, “No,” ESA has always said, “we can’t show you the Navcam images…”

 
And then – as I described in my rather fanciful intro – last Thursday came word that that policy has changed, and ESA will start releasing Navcam images of Comet 67P. Not just “often”, or “regularly”, but “DAILY”!!

 
Hmmmm… not wanting to kick a gift horse in the mouth here, obviously, but can’t help wondering what’s brought about THAT sudden change of heart? I’m sure it has nothing to do at all with the way the spotlight swung around to blaze right in ESA’s blushing face after the Germans posted their letter, and disgruntled Tweets, FB pages and blog posts like mine started to spread. No, nothing at all…

 
Seriously tho, that’s great news, and it has been welcomed by many people following the mission. We were expecting the first daily release on Friday, but word came out of ESA that there’ll be a catch-up release of three images (taken Friday, Saturday and Sunday) on Monday, so we’ll look forward to that! And again, being serious, this is a genuinely big change of policy by ESA. It was something they could do, and they did it, so well done, and thank you, to everyone who helped bring about that change.

 
But… yeah, you knew there was going to be a ‘but’, didn’t you… as welcome as that change of policy is, it still leaves us with that fundamental problem. The main scientists behind the main cameras just don’t seem to want to share any more images than they absolutely have to. Why? What IS their problem? What are they afraid of?

 
Some people have suggested that one of their main fears is that they will somehow be “scooped” by an amateur who spots something on one of their images, and tells the world about it – and then claims the glory for its discovery – before they themselves have a chance to. They are worried that if their data is released to the public before they have had a chance to work with it, it will damage or even ruin their careers, because they won’t be able to use that data, or those images, in professional papers and journals, etc.

 
Let’s put that fear to bed shall we?

 
Firstly, let’s take a step back and look again at what “people like me” are asking for. What we would love to happen with Rosetta is the same as what happens with the Mars rovers and Cassini probe – for  compressed versions of some ( note: some, not all!) of the untouched, uncalibrated “raw” images of the comet sent back by the probe to be posted online on the day they’re received.

 

It’s important to understand the true nature of these images. The probes send back “raw” images, which are not the shiny, sharp-focussed and accurately-coloured ones you see in glossy books or magazines, or the ones which the professional scientists eventually use in their journals, publications and papers, just basic images which are full of info but that info is quite well hidden, and the pics need a lot of work doing to them before they’re ready for use. In the case of the Cassini probe and Mars rovers, these images are then compressed by people working at NASA, to reduce their detail a bit, and it is THESE images, known as “compressed raws”, which are posted online for People Like Me to see. We commonly refer to them as “raw images” but they’re not, and that can result in some confusion sometimes. Anyway, these compressed raws are quite grainy and a little blurry and very, very basic, little more than “first look” JPG snapshots really. But they’re more than good enough for People Like Me, and the general public, because they just show the subject and any features or details on it. After reaching Earth these images are then, over months, processed – enhanced, smoothed, sharpened, combined, etc – to make the high quality calibrated images the scientists work with and use to support their theories and observations, and include in their professional presentations and papers.

 

So, deep breath, let’s be perfectly clear here: all we want to see are compressed versions of more of the the raw images sent back by the probe – and, as I said earlier, we don’t even want to see all of them. We would be more than happy with a single compressed raw image a day, so we could watch the comet nucleus rotating, see surface features roll into and then roll out of view again. That is not a big ask. It really isn’t.

 
And seriously, come on, if there was any risk at ALL of scientists’ careers being put at risk by the public and prompt release of such raw images, does anyone truly believe that the NASA teams behind the Mars rovers and Cassini Saturn probe would allow THEIR compressed raw images to be posted on the internet, almost in real time?

 
Of course they wouldn’t. And the thing is, the papers and journals etc the professionals produce feature very few images anyway, and instead are packed with rune-like charts and diagrams only other scientists can understand, abstract works of art created using data from the hi-tech instruments, sensors and detectors on the probe, not the cameras, which look like they were plucked straight out of a physics text book. We can’t reduce data from space probes to create diagrams like that, don’t be silly.

 
As a scientist once said: “A picture paints a thousand words, but a good graph paints a million…” Okay, so I just made that up, but it’s still true.

 
So suggesting that the release of Rosetta raw images might risk harming the careers of the scientists working on the Rosetta mission is at best a clumsy smokescreen and at worst just wrong –

 
…but hang on, if the raw images are as rubbish as I’ve just said, why do People Like Me want to see them anyway?
Firstly, ok, hands up, it’s partly because we love all this “space stuff” and are, selfishly, just impatient to see new cool pictures from space! But more seriously, we want to see them because many of us use those cool pictures to “Spread the word” about space exploration through our Outreach work. We don’t just want to see those pictures, we need to see them. And use them.(“Use them” for good, scientists, not to wickedly scoop your discoveries or cruelly destroy your careers, calm down…)

 
What the scientists behind the OSIRIS cameras don’t seem to understand – or maybe just don’t care about – is that in the 21st C there is a hunger for their images out here, if not from huge numbers of the general public then at least a good number of People Like Me, space enthusiasts who are tech- and net- and social-media savvy, good communicators, and fantastic ambassadors. We basically work for the world’s space agencies for free, spreading the word about their missions through our Tweets and blogs, FB posts and forum postings.

 

 

That’s what I do. I’m not just “interested in science”, it’s a huge part of my life. I blog and Tweet and use FB, yes, but I am also a children’s science author, and for three decades now I have also been giving Outreach talks in schools and to community groups in any school, community centre or drafty church hall with a power socket and a blank wall. I take my Outreach work extremely seriously, so I want – I NEED – new pictures to put into my talks, to keep them as up to date and relevent as possible, so I can show those previously-mentioned classrooms full of kids, and community centres and church halls full of farmers, teachers, housewives and retired people the wonders of the universe and help them appreciate just what amazing things we can do.

 
But my talks are VERY heavily weighted with NASA images, simply because they release more. Whenever I have a talk to give I can be pretty sure there will be a NEW image from them, of Mars, or Saturn, or Mercury, to put into my talk, replacing an older one, thus keeping my talk fresh. That simply isn’t the case with ESA images.

 
Which is not ESA’s fault, it seems, but because of its image release policy ESA’s profile is so much lower than NASA’s. In fact, I think the Rosetta PIs would would be suprised – and many others in ESA depressed – to know just how many people who come to my talks, people interested in space, know very little about ESA. Some don’t even know it exists. They think space = NASA. And why is that? Because NASA’s pictures are everywhere, and there are new ones every time they do something! There’s no need for a fanfare when a “new” image is released because they’re released all the time!
So that is why I feel so strongly about this.

 
Still not convinced of a need to change ESA’s Rosetta image release policy? Let me try and illustrate what I mean.
When I’ve finished writing this blog post I’m going to get stuck into the latest b&w raw images from Opportunity, the Mars Exploration Rover currently trundling along up there on the rim of Endeavour crater. I downloaded a couple of dozen of raw images from “Oppy” earlier today, and before I go to bed I will be turning them into colour mosaics and panoramas, which I will then put on FB, Twitter and my blog, where they will be seen by thousands of people, *thousands*. They will then be reTweeted and Shared by many of those people, including some who work ON THE MER MISSION, grateful for my hard work on their behalf, and so thousands *more* people will see them, and be reminded – or learn for the first time – how amazing Oppy’s continuing adventure is.

 
If I had some raw OSIRIS images of Comet 67P images to use, I would be able to do the very same thing with *them* – not trying to “scoop” the camera team, not trying to ruin their careers or anything like that, but to just spread the word. But I have no such images. Draw your own conclusions about the lost Outreach potential that represents.

 
So, where are we? Well, some progress has clearly been made on this issue, but the main problem remains, and it is this: for whatever reason, the scientists in control of the main Rosetta cameras simply do not want to release more images. They apparently don’t see why they should, and don’t care what everyone else thinks. And to repeat what I said in my first blog post – that sucks. But it appears there’s nothing ESA can do about it. The contracts drawn up between ESA and the states behind the Rosetta hardware are bound by spells and witchcraft so strong that to try and rewrite them is forbidden, for fear of the very fabric of Time and Space ripping itself apart.

 
We can only hope that someone is doing something to bring about changes to this situation in the future, and cross our fingers that there are discussions taking place in ESA about making new contracts very different, i.e. requiring PIs etc to be freer with their images. After all, the cameras and instruments, amazing as they are, can’t fly into space on their own, they have to have a ride from ESA, so without ESA the PIs are, to put it politely, stuffed. They would have no data to work with without ESA. So we’ll have to wait and see if things change in the future. As things stand now, on August 6th the TV news presenters won’t say “Scientists supplying images to the European Space Agency, taken with their cameras riding onboard the ESA probe ROSETTA, have allowed ESA to release several new pictures of a comet…” they’ll say “The European Space Agency has taken new images of a comet”. So things have to change in the future, because unless and until the current situation is made clearer, and the PIs and agencies and institutions in question are made to see the error of their ways, this issue is going to remain a thorn in ESA’s side, and even though clearly it’s not the organisation’s fault, people will continue to believe that ESA doesn’t like to share its images with the world.

 
But is that a big deal anyway? I’ve been asked by a few non-astronomy people what all the fuss is about, and why I’m so bothered about this image release issue. And it’s a fair question. It’s probably true to say that the majority of the public don’t give a **** about what ESA or NASA is doing most of the time, and Rosetta’s comet encounter is not even on their radar.They’re too busy with their everyday, hard lives, their families, and their own more “down to Earth” hobbies. Many of them simply have no interest in space exploration, in the same way I have no interest in the ups and downs of celebrity “relationships” or most of sport. Each to their own, eh? Others are openly hostile to the exploration of space, seeing it as a waste of money, perhaps even a criminal waste of money, for all the usual reasons. And at a time when the Middle East and North Africa are basically huge piles of dynamite waiting for someone to toss lit matches on, and when airliners are being shot out of the sky by East European lunatics, really, who cares about whether or not starry-eyed space geeks get to see blurry, grainy images of a comet soon after they’re taken or not?

 
I’m not going to puff out my chest with indignation here and huff and puff and sputter “But… but… it’s the PRINCIPLE of the thing!” because that’s always a naive, lazy argument and wouldn’t persuade anyone. It wouldn’t persuade me. No, really, it comes down to this: if your incredible camera, on an amazing machine, built by remarkable people, is taking stunning images of a fascinating thing, why WOULDN’T you want to share more of those images with the world? It’s ridiculous.
But, as has been pointed out to me, it’s not uncommon either. Raw images taken by the MESSENGER probe studying Mercury are not posted to the web. Nor are Hubble images, or images taken by many other space-probes. Why get so worked up about Rosetta’s images then?

 
Well, just speaking personally and, yes, selfishly here, I don’t feel so narked about the lack of raw images from the aforementioned missions because I’m not as interested in or as excited by their photographic targets as I am about comets. That’s just me. I imagine the dedicated fans of Mercury, the Moon and Venus would love to see the raw images sent back from the missions currently exploring those faraway places but it’s up to them to shout up for them as I am shouting up for comets and Rosetta. But bigger picture – this is a first, and firsts are always special, always exciting. Yes, other probes have encountered other comets in the past, but they were all fly-bys, essentially imaging hit and runs. Rosetta’s mission to 67P is different. This is no one night stand. We are going to be at the comet for a long time, following its growth and evolution, seeing how it changes over time.

 
We should be doing that right now, watching the comet growing larger up ahead, as if standing on the bridge of the USS Enterprise in front of that huge view-screen, seeing blurry features swim into sharp focus, each day the comet nucleus a little larger, a little clearer. And once the navcam images start being released that will happen, yes… but oh, compressed versions of those OSIRIS images would be so much better, so much more detailed, it would be amazing seeing the comet growing larger on those, wouldn’t it? Oh well, it looks like that’s not going to happen.

 
Meanwhile, Rosetta is closing in on the comet, and next Thursday we’ll get to see at least one more OSIRIS image which should show a lot more detail. It should confirm if that… dark…thing… on the outward-facing side of the smaller of the two conjoined bodies (or “on the top of the duck’s head” if you prefer to think of it that way) really is a big crater, as many are speculating. And the next OSIRIS images should also shine more light on the nature of the bright “collar” connecting the two parts of the nucleus. Looking forward to seeing those, of course.

 
…and then will we really see nothing more until Arrival Day, August 6th ? No, surely not!

 
Well, I hope not. That would be a a great shame, but I fear that might be the case as it looks like that’s the deal we’re stuck with. I hope I’m wrong, and that taking account of the interest in their mission the OSIRIS team will be a bit more generous. If they aren’t, well, I genuinely believe that would be a bad thing, and another example of how the drip…drip…drip image release policy, forced on it by others, waving ancient contracts in the air, is damaging to the modern, open, forward-thinking ESA.

 
Ok, I’m done with this now. I’m not going to keep posting one frustrated rant after another about it. My position is clear, and from now on whatever will be, will be. So let’s end on a positive note! Rosetta is now just a couple of weeks away from its arrival at Comet 67P and excitement is building. The Rosetta Outreach team is now busting a gut to raise the profile of the mission even higher, with competitions, cute animations and more – a fantastic effort. Space enthusiasts around the world are counting down the days until The Big Day, and even if the OSIRIS team seems as determined to hold on to its images as tightly as Gollum clutches his Precious ring, from tomorrow ESA will be releasing new navcam images daily, which is brilliant. Great discoveries and sights are just around the corner. Our knowledge of the universe is about to take another leap forward.

 
As the great man said on the bridge of the Enterprise: “Buckle up…!”

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3 Responses

  1. To bring a human touch to the story, here’s your ‘Gollum’, on the left: https://twitter.com/toriweaver/status/492673729554833408/photo/1 – wonder what secrets he had just shown to Lintott. Eyes only, of course … 😉

  2. […] letzteres auch sanft verarbeitet im UMSF-Forum und alle drei reichlich heftig hier. Und natürlich hätte man gern mehr zum Arbeiten, aber so isses besser als […]

  3. Hello there, I share and understand your feelings regarding a lack of photos from the various space agencies of comets.
    And to be clear it’s not the scientists who control the release of said photos, but the entities and special interest groups who fund these missions.
    Maybe there aren’t any pictures because if we had a constant supply of photos, then some astute people could work out and have evidence, that comets are not icy rocks sublimating water for millions of miles into the solar system from a nucleus devoid of water. And start asking some difficult questions as to their true nature & why it’s being kept from us? Hope this helps with some of your frustration.

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