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ROSETTA UPDATE

Well, I *say* update, but there’s not much to say, because someone appears to have bunged a cork in the image pipeline between ESA and The Outside World. Again.

Although we were supposed to be getting them daily, the last image we saw of Comet 67P was taken on August 23rd, and released on August 27th, and that was of just one quarter of the comet. Why Well, that makes sense because ROSETTA is now so close to the comet that its NAVCAM cameras can only see a quarter of the comet at one time, so they’re having to take four photos to image the whole nucleus. But did they release a batch of four pictures to show the whole nucleus? No. They just released one image. And although they must be being taken to aid the hunt for a landing site, we haven’t seen any new full quality OSIRIS images since August 14th, which is scandalous, to be perfectly frank.

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Really, ESA? Really? Your Outreach and Education people, your media people, your internet people spent months and months doing brilliant work to raise public awareness of and interest in the mission – cute animations, interactive websites, the absolute genius “Are We There yet?” competition etc – and now, when ROSETTA’s cameras are sending back the best ever views of a comet, you slam the door?

I don’t mean to be rude, but that’s just bloody stupid. In the run up to Arrival Day, and for a couple of weeks after, the ROSETTA mission had a fantastic level of public interest, each new image greeted with excitement and appreciation, but with no new images being released that interest is waning, and ROSETTA is fading into the background. Dangerous, very dangerous. Once you lose momentum – and support – like that it’s hard to get it back.

So what’s going on? Why are we not seeing any images from ROSETTA now? I know the ROSETTA team’s #1 priority is using OSIRIS’ incredible imaging capabilities to find a safe landing site for Philae, and not to take, and share with us, pretty pictures, and that is fair and fine, the clock is ticking. OSIRIS, as we have already established, is essentially a private camera which has hitched a ride to 67P onboard an ESA spacecraft, and the people who operate the camera say when its images are released, ESA has no say in that, simple as that. But ESA does have say over when navcam images can be released, so why have they stopped sharing them?

I think it’s possibly because ESA’s “higher ups” are worried that now ROSETTA is so close to the comet, its navcam images are so good that they can show details and features on its surface too small to ever have been seen before (which is a GOOD thing!!!), and they don’t want to risk upsetting the OSIRIS people by putting anything out which might pre-empt their work.

And I’m not the only one who thinks this way. Richard Berry, who once edited “Astronomy” magazine and is a genuine astronomy expert, posted this comment on Facebook after I posted my “Missing” poster on my page…

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Is this the case? Are navcam images now essentially too good to share with the public? Well, the general public are no risk. They just see a picture and either think “Huh, okay…” or “Wow!” depending on their level of scientific knowledge and how much they “get” this space stuff. But ok, there are many people “out here” with a more specialised interest in these things – we “space enthusiasts” who follow these missions daily, download every image, pour over them for hours and use them to make our own images, enhanced, stretched, etc – and we could conceivably use navcam images taken on different days to spot subtle changes like new rockfalls, or areas of out-gassing opening up, so I can see that might be a genuine concern in some circles, even though NASA is happy to release daily images from its Mars rovers and CASSINI Saturn orbiter and risk the same thing happening.

So, ok, playing Devil’s Advocate here it might be reasonable for the OSIRIS team to keep their images to themselves, but it’s absolutely not, in my opinion, acceptable for ESA to do the same with its navcam images. I go back to my original point about funding. We paid for this mission, with our wages, with the money in our pockets, with the money we earned from working in our jobs in factories, or on hospital wards, or in garages, or classrooms, so those images are ours, and we should be allowed to see them. Many people disagree with that point of view, and that’s fine, but it is very much my point of view and I’m sticking to it.

And apart from that, I’m baffled how ESA could invest so much effort, time and money in running such a brilliant campaign to get the public interested in the mission, to get them to invest in it personally, only to stop releasing images just when things are getting really interesting and we’re seeing things no human eye has ever seen before. If someone in a sharp suit, sat behind a desk in some office deep in the bowels of ESA HQ has told the imaging team to stop releasing images for anything other than practical reasons, then they need to think again.

I hope that this is just a blip because everyone there is so busy looking for a landing site, and that no-one has decided we’ve seen enough for now, and that we see some new images soon. 🙂

In the meantime, I hope some of you will wander on over to my “Astropoetry” blog to read my new poem, inspired by ROSETTA’s mission to 67P

 

Dalby Forest “Starfest” 2014

Wow… what a weekend!

Stella and I had such a great time at the 2013 “Starfest” at Dalby Forest, organised by the Scarborough AS, that there was never any doubt in our minds that we’d go to the 2014 event, and we booked our tent pitch as soon as we possibly could. So, last Thursday lunchtime, with the car packed to overflowing with camping and astronomy “stuff”, and with Peggy in her box on my knee – her first ever camping trip, what could possibly go wrong? – we headed south, following our increasingly grouchy SatNav’s instructions on how to get to Dalby Forest.

After a promising start poor Peggy didn’t travel very well, at least not for the first part of the journey, and halfway to Dalby she was very quiet ad subdued, but after spending some time on my lap she perked up, and by the time we rolled onto the Adderstone Field site in the Forest she was feeling much happier…

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…and after checking in with organiser Mell Jeffery, the driving force behind the Starfest, we got her out of the car and into the fresh air as quickly as we could, and then set about putting the tent up… always fun, that part… :-/

Thankfully the BBC weather app was wrong with its prediction that we would arrive at the same time as the heavens opened, and we were able to put up the main part of our tent in dry conditions, but as we dragged the canopy out of the car God opened his bath on the campsite and we had to just leave it in a heap on the grass and retreat, Stella into the tent and me into the car. It took us ages to get it attached to the tent, and to eventually fill the tent with all our things, but eventually, by dodging gaps in the downpours, we managed it, and by mid-evening had our little “home from home” set up just how we like it and were able to cook our first meal. At this point there were already quite a few tents and caravans etc on the field…

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but we knew that the field wouldn’t really fill up until the next day, the Friday, when people from across the country would begin to arrive. By late evening the rain was lashing the campsite, wave after wave of it, so we retreated into the tent and stayed there. Poor Peggy hated the sound of the rain on the tent, and for the first time EVER crawled under my duvet and cuddled up in the crook of my arm, wanting protection from this strange, scary new environment she had been dropped into. Soon she was snoring soundly, little paws flicking in her sleep… but I couldn’t really get to sleep, not with the tantalising prospect of a clear sky in the wee small hours of Friday morning, so I could only drop into and out of brief dozes. And when I looked out at about two am… oh wow… the clouds had parted as predicted, and the sky was beautifully clear, stars EVERYWHERE…!! Amazingly I couldn’t see or hear anyone else about, I had the whole field to myself, and in the silence of the night the only sounds were my camera’s shutters snick-snicking and various animals in the woods. It was wonderful! Here’s the first pic I took, unprocessed, straight off the camera, a 6s exposure with no tracking or anything like that, just camera plus tripod…

1st pic Fri am

And looking towards the east…

Fri am pleiades etc

And I managed to get my first Starfest 2014 images of Comet Jacques, too…!

1st comet Fri am

But soon after that the humidity went through the roof and my lenses misted up, one after the other, so I called it a night, grateful for what I had seen and relieved that we hadn’t travelled all that way in vain; you always go to these things telling yourself that if you’re totally clouded out it doesn’t matter, it’s being there that’s important, but a starcamp with no stars is a pretty sad affair, and very disappointing, so as I crawled back under my quilt, to Peggy’s mewling “Where have YOU been!!” protests, I was very happy…

Next morning dawned bright and sunny, and a great day stretched out ahead of us. After a good breakfast we headed off the field for a trip into Scarborough, and as we left more and more cars, caravans and mobile homes were rolling  onto the field, boosting the starcamp’s numbers. By the time we got back the field looked very different to how we had left it…

Fri evening before talk

It wasn’t long until people were heading down to The BIg Tent for the “Meet and Greet” intro to the event by the organisers, and to tuck into a hog roast. After a very… very… very lengthy ‘welcome address’…

welcome

…the crowd broke up and we headed back to our tent to tuck into our hoisin duck and rice, leaving everyone else to their hog roast. Soon it was time for us to head back down to the tent too, for the first of the weekend’s two illustrated talks, so off we went to stake our places at the front, as you do! Thankfully a fellow EAS member loaned me a chair so I didn’t have to sit on the tiny foldable stool we take with us, and I was able to enjoy Paul Money’s interesting talk on some of the deep sky objects which lurk in Scorpius and Sagittarius, two constellations which are, oddly, quite hard to see from our latitude!

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But it was a very enjoyable talk, very animated, very humourous, and by the time it ended everyone was straining at the leash to get out and do some real observing. And we were all delighted to find that the sky above the field was looking very promising, with big clear patches! ( Delighted, but surprised, seeing as all the weather forecasts had predicted Sunday night would be the best night of the weekend.) So we dashed to our scopes, and cameras, and got stuck into a good night’s observing.

Straight away, even though the sky was still quite light, I was able to start taking pictures. Here’s my first shot from that night…

Fri after talk #1

Which you can probably tell shows Cassiopeia. A little later, with the sky a little darker…

Fri after talk comet 1

..and the night just got better and better. I was out there for hours, until almost 3am I think, just taking photo after photo, wandering around the field, chatting to others and looking through their scopes, which is what you do at starcamps like this, you share. I was glad to be able to show an absolute newcomer her first comet, galaxy and star cluster through my humble but trusty 70mm refractor, before heading away from our tent to just browse and mingle. I managed to take some really nice pics before cloud and mist eventually came in…

Fri night MIlky Way processed

Fri night crop M31

Fri night Plough1

It’s not until you’ve been somewhere like Dalby that you truly appreciate the beauty – and rarity – of a genuinely dark sky. To stand there, in the middle of a big, big field, with a huuuuuge sky above you, dwarfing you, pressing down on you under the weight of the stars in it… to see the Milky Way looking like a great fat speckly mottled vapour trail cutting the sky in half… to actually lose familiar constellations because suddenly they are being drowned by myriad fainter stars around them is quite magical. All you can do is stand there, look up, look around you, and drink in the view. Which is what I did for hours, But eventually we did lose the sky, and I headed back to bed, thrilled to have been under such a gloriously clear and dark sky and to have been able to take such lovely pictures…

Saturday dawned bright but a little misty, and after a big breakfast we headed out again to take a trip into Whitby, hoping to track down a mineral and fossil shop we had visited last time, just in case they had anything new in within my budget! Of course, we didn’t manage to find the shop until we were almost back at the car, and I didn’t buy anything, but it was still a good day out, and we had ice cream, so what more do you want? 🙂

Back at the campsite,the field was now almost full, with tents and caravans in all directions…

day pano....,

…which was good for me because Saturday night was the night I was giving *my* talk, and the more the merrier as far as I am concerned. Wandering around the site meant seeing lots of people and their telescopes…

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…and there was a trade stall too…

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…offering a bank account’s worth of eyepieces, equipment and accessories, including an iOptron star tracker I was **this** close to buying, several times… !

But as we headed down to the tent at 6.30 there was a problem – as you can see from the pic below, with the Sun yet to set, and the sky still very bright, inside the white tent there was just too much light for a presentation, it was impossible to see any of my pictures on the screen…

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…so it was agreed to delay the start of my talk for an hour. But that was ok, because outside the tent some of our fellow star-campers were playing a game with blocks of wood and sticks that was drawing a large and intrigued / baffled crowd…

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So, I started my talk at eight, instead of seven, and it seemed to go down very well judging by the applause and comments at the end, but as I finished the sky outside wasn’t too good, very cloudy and murky, so like many people I headed to bed for a nap, catching up on some of the previous night’s lost sleep. But by midnight the sky was starting to clear, with stars shining through the mist and fog in strangely beautiful soft focus, and I headed outside, joining Stella who had already gone out to chat to some of our neighbours, just in time to catch a magnificently bright Iridium flare detonate above our tent, in the south like a small nuclear warhead, its brilliance only enhanced by the mist. Soon after the sky really began to clear, and within half an hour of that flare going off the sky was absolutely strewn with stars, and we all knew that we were going to have another beautiful clear sky – at least for a few hours – to enjoy…

So Stella and I just headed away from our tent and wandered around, chatting to people, watching shooting stars dash across the sky, and enjoying it all. There were telescopes of all shapes and sizes set up beside tents of all shapes and sizes, and in the darkness only the soft purr of motor drives and an occasional “wow…” could be heard as the stars wheeled above us. Here and there a red light bobbed about, as someone moved around their telescope, swapping an eyepiece or standing aside to let someone else have a look. Peaceful. Quiet. Just as a Starcamp should be. Here are some of the pics I took on that Sat night/Sunday morning…

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mway our tent s

night pano

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Stella tent Sun am

tent sky s

tents sky s

Sat 2am Milky Way

As you can see I go for scenic shots, using just my unguided camera with all its settings pushed up to “max”. But there were some very serious astro imagers there, taking long exposure, high resolution images of nebulae, clusters and galaxies with mega-expensive telescopes dripping with wires and guiders, connected to whirring laptops and clicking cameras, and if I was getting pictures that good with my simple set up I can only imagine how good THEIR pics must be!

Sunday dawned quite muggy and close, but soon the Sun burned off most of the mist and left us with a beautifully sunny day, which was good because Sunday is always “Rocket Day” at Starfest, when people make rockets out of fizzy drinks bottles and compete to see whose can fly furthest. It’s a brilliant event, a real family event, and is one of the highlights of the weekend, This year the standard of the entries was very high, some of the rockets flew for *miles* (not literally miles, don’t be daft!) and it was a really good laugh. Here are some of the pics I took…

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After the conclusion of the rocket contest, Stella headed down to the tent to join in with one of the organised yoga sessions. I took the chance to clean my poor dew-stained camera lenses, cook our lunch and spend some quality time with you know who…

sun lunch

Then I set up my meteorites outside the tent, and while the “Percussion “Workshop” created music inside the tent, outside I put on a brief “Show and Tell” with them, which quite a few people came along to and enjoyed. Then it was time to head out one last time, down into Thornton-le-Dale to take a look at its Scarecrow Festival… which was dominated by ghosts and Minions… 😉

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Having looked around the scarecrows we went on to Pickering and had a lovely Indian meal in a restaurant there, before heading back to the campsite, where a rather glorious sight was waiting for us in the sky – a very bright “Sundog” and a hint of a solar halo, too…

sunday pre quiz sundog

solar halo sun prequiz

And then we took a leap of faith and headed down to join in with the “Astroquiz”.

Why was that a “leap of faith”? Well, because we took part last year – having been told in advance what great fun it was – and, to be honest, it was awful, so we were wary of joining in this year. Last year it wasn’t so much a quiz as an exam, with often ridiculously hard questions newcomers and beginners, who had been encouraged to take part, didn’t have a hope in hell of answering, and a question-master who seemed to delight in showing off his own knowledge and making fun of beginners who mispronounced things or got questions wrong. It was so uncomfortable and humiliating that we came out vowing we’d never put ourselves through that again. But we had been told this year’s would be different – more of a “fun pub quiz” with no individual questions, and questions for everyone, not just experts – so we went down, fingers crossed…

…and it was absolutely FANTASTIC, really, really good fun. With new question masters, picture rounds, almost a dozen teams and questions for the kids too, it was such a good laugh, just like a really good pub quiz should be. Everyone was made to feel involved and welcome, and no-one was spoken down to. Full credit to everyone involved for changing the format and making it such a highlight of the weekend. If you were wondering, our team came third, which we were well chuffed with, and we came out delighted we had joined in…

…unfortunately, that was when our luck with the weather finally broke, and as the quiz was ending the rain started to come down. I did think, I’ll admit, that that was it, that all our stargazing had been done. But that was ok; I’d have taken one clear night out of the four, but by Sunday night we had already had three clear nights, so if Sunday night was going to be cloudy, well, fair enough…

But a little while later it cleared up again, the clouds rolled away and we were under a starry sky again!

It was at this point that the only real upset of the weekend happened. Basically, this is how it works: Adderstone field is reserved for the Starcamp and its attendees for that weekend, no-one else is allowed to camp on it, simple as that. The cost of the weekend includes that exclusivity, which means that people can leave their ridiculously expensive and valuable equipment outside their tents without having to worry about it being damaged or nicked. It’s a peace of mind thing. But at some point during the quiz a group of non-astronomers had rolled onto the field and set up in the bottom corner. When told about the arrangements and asked to move on they had refused, and eventually the police were called…

sun night intruders

As it turned out there was nothing they could do, for a variety of reasons, so the intruders were allowed to stay in their corner, on the understanding that they would keep,out of our way and keep their lights down to a minimum, and that worked out ok, but it was a rather uncomfortable time, and I felt *desperately* sorry for the organisers, especially Mell, who had put so much time and effort into planning and staging the event. They shouldn’t feel bad tho, it was totally out of their control and I don’t think it spoiled it for anyone.

By midnight the sky was really quite clear, and once again we were looking up at countless stars…

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sun night starclouds

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…and Stella and I had another wander around the field, chatting to people. She eventually turned in around one am, as clouds started to push in from the south, leaving me to wander the field on my own one last time, taking my last set of pictures, just savouring each and every minute I had left under that big, big sky…

Around half past two the stars were getting hazy again, so, reluctantly, I turned my back on them and headed back into the tent. Inside Stella and Peggy were cuddled up together, fast asleep, and it wasn’t long before I was asleep too…

Monday morning dawned cold and cloudy, but dry, and I enjoyed a quiet cup of tea before The Girls got up…

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After breakfast we set about packing up, always the worst part of trips like this. You can see that someone really, really didn’t want to go…

mon am

Rain showers came and went, but we managed to stay mostly dry as we packed up, and all too soon we were on our way home after a truly wonderful weekend.

Without being too gushy, it really was a fantastic weekend, a starcamp that was brilliant for accomplished and experienced stargazers who wanted to make the most of a beautiful dark sky, and so serious astrophotography and observing, but also enjoyable for newcomers and beginners, and any accompanying non-astronomer family members too. It was a true family friendly event, where everyone was made to feel welcome, and I didn’t see or hear of one beginner being refused a look through a telescope. Indeed, the experienced observers there, with their cannon-sized Dobsonians and finely-polished refractors were only too happy to show newcomers the sights through their telescopes, which is exactly how it should be.

Thanks to Mell, Andy, Laura and everyone who worked so hard to make Starfest 2014 such a huge success.Next year’s Starcamp will be held between August 13th and 17th, around the time of the Perseids meteor shower, and with no Moon in the way the prospect of standing under that huge dark Dalby sky with meteors zipping across the heavens is already making me drool! We’ll be booking our places as soon as we can, and hopefully I’ll be asked to give another talk too.

If you’ve never been to a Starcamp before but are thinking about it, go to Dalby Starfest in 2015. You’ll love it, I promise.

 

 

Catching up with ROSETTA…

Been away for a few days so I’ve gotten a bit behind with posting news and pics relating to ESA’s ROSETTA mission, so where have we got to? Well, if you are a follower of the ROSETTA pages you’ll have noticed that the NAVCAM image pipeline dried up soon after my last post here. That’s because the cameras are now involved in the search for a suitable landing site for the probe’s PHILAE lander, because Landing Day is coming up fast now and the ROSETTA team really, really need to identify somewhere on the comet’s bizarre, tortured nucleus that looks to be a safe place for PHILAE to settle down on ad get down to work.

And it seems they have now reduced the list of possible landing sites to five, shown here on images released by ESA…

UuPtltP

You really need to click on that and enlarge it to take a proper look at the proposed landing sites. They all look fascinating, for different reasons. I’m sure ROSETTA’s high resolution OSIRIS camera is imaging all those sites in incredible detail, picking out each and every boulder and fissure which might pose a threat to PHILAE if it tried landing there. I hope they share some new full resolution OSIRIS images of those regions soon. Come on guys, share the beauty! 🙂

Meanwhile, ROSETTA is now so close to 67 that the comet overflows the NAVCAM’s field of view, so we’re getting pictures like this…

Comet_on_23_August_2014_-_NavCam

With a bit of work, some more detail can be teased out of that view…

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…and I think that if you look more closely at the features on the limb of the nucleus at the top there, you begin to get a sense of just how dramatic the scenery on 67P is…

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So, the hunt is now on for a landing site for PHILAE! The ROSETTA team are taking lots of breathtakingly-detailed images of the comet, and I hope we get a closer look at those candidate sites too, because it would be fascinating to compare them.

More soon!

OSIRIS day…

Today, being Thursday, we should see another high resolution image of Comet 67P taken by the OSIRIS camera onboard ROSETTA. In the meantime, here’s yesterday’s NAVCAM release, which is one of the most beautiful yet I think…

First, the image as it was released…

Comet_on_19_August_2014_-_NavCam

..and with a bit of enhancement in my photo processing packages, to bring out detail and surface features…

Comet_on_19_August_2014_-_NavCam enh2

Keep an eye open for that new OSIRIS image later today!

Comet Jacques… gotcha!

In my previous post I gave you a guide to how and where to find Comet Jacques in the sky at the moment, and I hope some of you found it useful. Thankfully, a few hours later, I was able to go out and see it myself, from a dark sky location not too far from Kendal (BIG “Thank you!!” to my observing buddy Carol Grayson, of Eddington AS, for taking Stella and I, and our EAS mate Phil, out into the Shap wilderness!) and it looked lovely…

Some images for you, to show you where it is, how big it is, how bright it is, etc.

Ok, firstly, a single frame, with no enhancement or messing about with at all, shot with my rather basic digital SLR on a tripod, fast 3200ISO setting, 50mm lens set at f2, and six second time exposure…

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And here’s a “stack” of half a dozen such frames, with some processing… you’ll see the comet stands out a lot more clearly…

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Can’t find it? Here, I’ll ring it for you…

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And a crop of that image, again post-“enhancement”…

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So, success! The comet was really easy to spot in binoculars, and photographed easily with an undriven camera too. So go on, get out there and find it! No excuses!! 🙂

It was actually a very busy night up at Shap. We all went up there hoping to see the northern lights, as there was enhanced activity which looked like it might creep far enough south to allow us to see it, and I did manage to catch a purple auroral glow with my camera, and a hint of a green arc too, low down and faint…

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But the highlight of the night was the clarity and brightness of the Milky Way, it looked like it had been airbrushed on the sky, and I took a series of three photos of it, stitched them together with software, and after a little bit more work this is what came out the other end… click on it to enlarge it to see it in all its glory, ad to see why I’m so chuffed with it…

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Wow… that must be the best Milky Way pic I’ve ever taken… 🙂

Thanks again to Carol for taking Stella and I out there, and to Phil Walker for his great company. Phil, we have to get you a camera of your own mate… !

How to find a comet TONIGHT!

It looks like the next few nights are going to be quite clear for large parts of the UK (I know, I know, I’m optimistic/eternally naive/gullible aren’t I??), and with the Moon now getting out of the way – having drowned our everything in the sky with its silvery light for the past couple of weeks – this could be our best chance to get a good look at a comet in the sky. 

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “A comet! Wow! They’re gorgeous! They have huge tails, and bright heads, and they blaze in the sky! Yeah, I’ll drag myself off the sofa and go outside and look for one of those tonight!” but calm down! Yes, it’s true that if you do a Google image search for “comet” you’ll be presented with lots of pictures like this…

comet google image search

…which leads many people to think that ALL comets look amazing and spectacular in the sky, with beautiful bright tails stretching up to overhead, and obvious to the naked eye, but that’s not what’s on offer in the sky at the moment. While some comets can look like that they are very rare, and we maybe see one of those every decade or so. No, most comets are very faint and fuzzy, with no tail at all, and really look just like an out of focus star, and they are so small in the sky that you need binoculars or even a telescope to find them and look at them. It’s a comet like that which is visible in the northern sky at the moment, and it’s called “Comet Jacques”.

Comet Jacques is a classic “decent comet”, and by that I mean it’s not bright enough to be seen with the naked eye, even from a dark site, but it is clearly visible in binoculars and small telescopes. It has a fail, but that tail is very small, and faint, and only shows up in long exposure photos. Visually, through binoculars or a small telescope, it really does look just like an out of focus star, slightly hazy, and with a pale greenish tinge.

So, now I’ve stuck a pin in your big excited balloon, why are the next few nights a good time to look for Comet Jacques? Because unlike shooting stars – which dash across the sky in a fraction of a second – comets move slowly across the sky, shifting their position amongst the stars a little each night, and for the past few weeks Comet Jacques has been drifting slowly up from our horizon, through rather anonymous, unremarkable starfields, until it is now very close to a pattern of stars which is very easy for anyone to find, no matter how much or how little they know about the night sky and astronomy.

For the next few nights Comet Jacques will be drifting up towards a small “W”-shaped pattern of stars known as “Cassiopeia” (“Cass-EE-oh-pee-ah”). Cassiopeia is one of the easiest-to-spot constellations in the whole sky, because of its shape, size and height in the sky at this time of year, so having Comet Jacques drifting up towards it ,means finding the comet is a lot, lot easier now than it has been. Here’s how you find it.

First – if your sky is clear, of course – you need to go out about ten, half past ten tonight, when the sky is getting nicely dark, and the stars are popping out. Face roughly north east and scan the sky above the horizon for a lone, bright golden-coloured star… This is “Capella”, one of the brightest stars in the sky, and your first “celestial stepping stone” to Comet Jacques…

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Having found Capella you want to look at the sky to its upper right… you’re looking for a small but distinct “W” of stars… This is Cassiopeia…

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Now we’re getting somewhere! Having found Cassiopeia, look beneath it, a little to the left, and you’ll see a fairly bright star…

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You now need to go halfway back UP that imaginary line between Cassiopeia and the star… look closely there and you’ll see, maybe out of the corner of your eye, a smudgy, blurry area…

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This smudgy blurry area is actually a pair of star clusters, known, with staggering originality, as “The Double Cluster”… Here’s a photo I took of the area recently, and if you click on it to enlarge it you’ll see I’ve “joined the dots” of Cassiopeia and circled the Double Cluster to help you find them, and show you how close they are, too…

cass d cluster marked photo

Seen through a telescope the Double Cluster is a gorgeous sight…

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…and even a small pair of binoculars will show you two clusters of teeny tiny, looking like pinches of salt on a dark tablecloth. The Double Cluster is your guide to Comet Jacques at the moment, because the comet is going to drift up past it over the next few nights, en-route to Cassiopeia itself, which it will wander through over next weekend.

Here’s where the comet will be tonight – Tuesday evening – after dark, in relation to the Double Cluster…

tues night

Now, I’m not going to give you a more detailed map than that because there;s no point, it could just confuse you. Rather, you just should find the Double Cluster in your binoculars and then move them to the left, and start to sweep the area of sky for the comet. You’re looking for something that looks like this…

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…but it will be small, seriously, like an out of focus star. Its colour should give it away tho, and its general hazy appearance will be a give away too. If you don’t find it at first, KEEP LOOOKING, but BE PATIENT; don’t get all flustered with yourself if you still haven’t found it after a few minutes. It might take time, but you’ll spot it, eventually, it will just be *there* one time you sweep, and you’ll know right away that you’re looking at the right thing. And once you have found it, you’ll be able to go back to it again much more easily, and then will be able to follow it as it moves up towards Cassiopeia during the rest of the week…

Jacques map dalby b

So, there you go, that’s how, and where, to find a comet in the sky tonight and for the next few nights. If – no, WHEN you find it, just take a moment to consider what you’re looking at. Comets are huge masses of very dusty, very dirty ice that are relics leftover from the birth of the solar system. At the moment a European Space Agency probe called ROSETTA is flying close to a comet, and sending back quite incredible images, revealing that it looks like this…

Comet_on_11_August_2014_-_NavCam_node_full_image_2b

So when you spot Comet Jacques in the sky, just remember that that little, fuzzy, greenish blur is actually an enormous space iceberg, cratered and covered in mountains and cliffs…

Good luck!

 

 

 

 

Open wide, 67P…

Ok, before you ask, yes, I did get up at 03.30 this morning and head up to Kendal Castle to try and see and photograph the close conjunction of Jupiter and Venus, and yes, it was cloudy, and no, I didn’t see a ***** thing. Lots of other people saw it though, and the pictures taken around the world look stunning. Stupid (insert obscenity of your choice here ) Cumbrian weather. I think that was the Universe taking its payment for letting me see that incredible display of noctilucent clouds in June. I knew she’d get her own back.

Oh well, I’ll cheer myself up with looking at today’s NAVCAM image of Comet 67P! Here it is…

Comet_on_17_August_2014_-_NavCam

Ok, let’s turn it round so “north” is up, crop it, and just enhance it a little…

Comet_on_17_August_2014_-_NavCam c

Ooh, I like that view! Makes it look like 67P is a strange kind of space beast with a wide open mouth… (note to the tinfoil hat wearing Nibiru/UFO/chemtrail/Godlike Productions brigade, just in case they’re confused: it isn’t a “space beast” it’s just a comet, ok? Now go back and take your medicaton…). Let’s do a little more work on that…

Comet_on_17_August_2014_-_NavCam enh

Really loving that view now. Particularly love the smaller part of the nucleus, with that “maw” at the front…

Comet_on_17_August_2014_-_NavCam enh b

But as striking as that is, you can’t help wondering what it would look like in colour, right? Well, turns out it wouldn’t look much different really. How do I know? Because after he was good enough to answer a list of questions at the end of last week, I put one more question to Dr Holger Sierks – OSIRIS PI – on this very subject…

When do you think you will be releasing colour images of C-G? We’re all really looking forward to seeing those.

HS: Color images of C-G are tricky as we image in one color at a time, thus need to co-register images onto the shape model of the nucleus. We are working on it. You should not expect much color when looking at the nucleus, the surface is grey and has very little reflections (4% albedo). Color ratio maps are a scientific tool to work small signature in compositional variations.

So there you go. In colour 67P would look a lot like it does in black and white images: grey.

More tomorrow.

Comet 67P – more images…

I love it – LOVE it! – how the ESA ROSETTA team is putting out NAVCAM images even over the weekends! Seriously guys, if you’re reading this, thank you. I think many of us expected you to bung a cork in the image pipeline between Friday and Monday, but no, true to your word you’ve kept those pictures coming.

If you haven’t seen them yet, here are the two released yesterday and today.

Comet 67P imaged on August 15th…

Comet_on_15_August_2014_-_NavCam

With a little messing about careful and curious enhancement, that becomes this, bringing out some details you can’t see on the original…

Comet_on_15_August_2014_-_NavCam enh b

And you know what? I’m *sure* we’re seeing layering of some kind here…

layering

Looking forward to OSIRIS close ups of that area…!

And today’s image, which shows us 67P from “the side” as it were, which really shows off its double nature…

Comet_on_16_August_2014_-_NavCam

…and again, with a little enhancement and reorientation…

Comet_on_16_August_2014_-_NavCam enh

Beautiful, isn’t it? I wish we could see some wider angle, longer exposure shots now tho, so we could see some of the activity coming off the comet.. the large jets and plumes we saw shooting off the comet in that fuzzy image on Arrival Day appeared to be coming out of the “neck” of the comet, shown so clearly there…

And look, there are some very dramatic cliffs on there, aren’t there?

mountains

More tomorrow…

Two worlds waltz before dawn on Monday morning…

Cross your fingers for a clear sky where you live in the wee small hours of Monday morning, because there will be something rather special to see in the east before dawn. About an hour or so before sunrise we’ll be able to see a pair of planets shining so close together in the sky they will look like one big, bright “star” to the naked eye, and through a pair of binoculars it will look like they’re almost touching…

The planets in question are Venus and Jupiter, and although planets appear to come close together in the sky fairly often – astronomers call them “conjunctions” – a close approach between two very bright planets, like this one, are more rare, so if you get a chance to see it on Monday morning, take it. You won’t regret it. You might not see such a striking sight in the sky again for a long time…

So, what do you have to do? Simple. Just stay up late on Sunday night, or set your alarm for You’re Having A Laugh o’clock (3.30/3.45am) Monday morning, then if you area able to leave your garden and head off in the car, find somewhere outside your city or town that’s as dark as possible, away from as much light pollution as you can reasonably go, with a low, flat north eastern horizon, too. That last part is very important: really try to find somewhere with no trees or buildings on the horizon to the east, and certainly no hills, or you might miss the show as any tall objects on the horizon might obscure your view of the planets until the Sun is rising and it’s too late.

Having found a good observing site – wait. Around 4am you should see what looks like a very bright “star” rising up from behind the horizon, off to the lower left of the waning Moon…

V J 1

Look more closely – use binoculars if you have them – and you’ll see that the “star” is actually a pair of stars shining very close together…

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Those “stars” are actually the two planets, but which is which?

V J 3

There you go, Venus and Jupiter, snuggled up close together in the sky! To your naked eye they might look like one single “star”, but if you have good eyesight you should be able to part them. However, the view through a good pair of binoculars – or a small telescope – should be glorious, with the two shining worlds less than half a degree apart, which is nothing astronomical terms – it’s actually less than the diameter of the Full Moon!

v j 4

If your sky is clear before sunrise on Monday morning, really, make every effort to get up and get out and see this. But if it’s cloudy on the morning, well, the two planets will still be close together the following morning, just not as close…

V J 5 19th

If you want to take photos of this event, give it a go! It’s not as if you’re wasting expensive film now, is it? Whatever camera you have, just aim it at the planetary pairing, set your camera to Auto, and see what comes out. But if you have a digital SLR camera, put it on a tripod, fit it with your longest lens and try lots exposures with different ISO ratings and apertures and you will get *something* you’re happy with, especially after a bit of processing in Photoshop or whatever picture processing software you use.

By the way, this planetary hook-up is occurring very close to a famous cluster of stars called the “Beehive Cluster”. You probably won’t be able to make out the star cluster with your naked eye, not with the sky so bright, but if you’re looking at the planets through binocs or a small telescope you should definitely notice a group of little peppercorn stars above and to the left of them…

V J 7

The official name for this cluster is “Praesepe”, and it’s also known as “M44” – which means it is the 44th object in a list of interesting objects to be found in the sky, drawn up by an astronomer called Charles Messier – and it is a quite beautiful sight in a dark sky. You’ll see it better in a few months, don’t worry about it too much now. If you can see it great, but if you can’t, don’t worry, seeing Venus and Jupiter is more important.

But don’t worry about taking or processing photographs, or getting hold of a pair of binoculars or a telescope to look at this with, just set your alarm, drag yourself out of bed, find a good spot and enjoy the show with just your eyes. That’s what astronomy is all about. Not fancy, expensive equipment, but seeing cool stuff in the sky with just your own eyes. 🙂

An interview with Dr Holger Sierks

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If there’s a busier person in ESA at the moment than Dr Holger Sierks – PI for the OSIRIS camera package onboard ROSETTA – I’d be very surprised. We all remember how excited he was on Arrival Day when he was able to show the first truly detailed OSIRIS images of the nucleus of Comet 67P, and since then he has been busy talking to the press, giving media interviews and, of course, taking more images and helping look for a November landing site for ROSETTA’s lander, “Philae”. So of course, as if he wasn’t busy enough with all that, I thought I’d email him a few questions of my own for this blog! Thankfully, Dr Sierks was – as almost every space scientist I’ve ever had dealings with – more than happy to answer my questions, and emailed me back answers right away. So, here then is a brief e-chat with the man behind the lens of OSIRIS…

Dr. Holger, thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. Firstly, how did it feel when you saw the first detailed OSIRIS images of the nucleus of 67P?

As I said, it was a very emotional moment. And I felt it was a historic moment, the first time ever a human eye saw a comet nucleus with unprecedented resolution.

On “Arrival Day” you showed us a few more images taken by OSIRIS. What were your first impressions of the comet when you saw those?

Well, the comet is so full of unexpected features, it will revolutionize our understanding of activity and how comets evolve. The first impression was simply: wow!

A week after “Arrival Day”, now things have calmed down a little, what are your thoughts on what you’re seeing on the images? It looks like a very complicated body with a very troubled, dynamic and violent past?

It is a complicated body indeed. We see traces of its past, or what we think are traces. We start seeing activity, aiming for the link to the surface structures back-projecting the jets to potential source regions.

Have you been able to use OSIRIS images to calculate the dimensions of 67P with any more accuracy yet?

No, not yet, the body is complex, we are working the update of the shape model to higher accuracy. It was surprising to see how well the first determination of dimensions matched the Hubble data from light curve reduction, just about 200 or 300 meters off. We have a good volume from our first shape model, it will not change dramatically with the improved data. With the mass determined by RSI on Rosetta, we’ll soon have a bulk density, which is important for interpretation of the surface morphology, and the mission dynamics.

Comet_details

Out here in the “space enthusiast community” we’re loving seeing a new Rosetta NAVCAM image every day, it really does make us feel like we’re flying alongside Rosetta, seeing the comet turning beneath us. Are there any plans to release OSIRIS images more often? We’d love to see them!

I know, we are sharing the same interests. NAVCAM helps following, and more and more instruments are now coming up with first results. We will release images more on scientific grounds now, and have to find a balance between analysis, publication and sharing. I am optimistic that we will manage. Priority now has landing, preparing the data products for the lander team to make the right decisions.

When 67P begins waking up, will OSIRIS be able to see details in the jets and plumes which form? Might you be able to actually see pieces coming off the nucleus?

The comet is awake now. I have shown first jets last Wednesday, we get first feel to localize the jets and back project them onto the surface. The dust detector on board sees first grains. Hope we’ll see more activity soon in limb view close-ups.

A more technical question: at Rosetta’s closest point to 67P, what will be the size of the smallest surface features OSIRIS will be able to resolve? Will it be able to see Philae after landing, like NASA’s HiRISE camera can see the Mars rovers on Mars?

The scale is 2cm pixel resolution from 1km distance with the narrow angle camera. The closest point to CG is still in discussion, depends on gas drag force to the spacecraft, and thus trajectory uncertainties. We hope to get as close as 3-4 km in close fly-bys, giving 6-8cm px resolution for short times. The lander overflights will likely be done from about 10 or 20km distance, so we will see the lander by 6-12 px across, not as high res as on Mars, but we will see it.

I understand that OSIRIS is first and foremost a scientific instrument, but have you identified any “Kodak Moments” photo opportunities? Maybe imagesof 67P with famous astronomical objects behind or close to it? A bright planet? Maybe even Earth, shining like a bright star? Any images like that might not be useful scientifically, but would have tremendous outreach and education value…

We will look for it. We go for occultation obs calibrating inside coma. We will check for solar system objects, good point. We got Saturn in view during Lutetia fly-by, were surprised by that, did not check in advance.

More personally, have you yourself always had an interest in comets, or is your interest purely scientific through Rosetta? I’m wondering if you observed any comets in the sky when you were younger? Any particularly special memories?

I followed Halley watch, felt comets were so special by their nature of active objects, evolving, carrying the volatile stuff in. The special moment was when realizing how close comets are to human life, my life, and the evolution of this planet.

I imagine you must be proud to be part of a mission following on from the historic GIOTTO encounter with Comet Halley in 1986?

Proud is not the right word; I feel touched and emotional to be part of this great team that follows Halley. Rosetta carries a lab to C-G and will allow following the questions raised by Halley fly-by, and raise new questions. I hope it will help understanding our solar system, and the early days, a little better.

The new image(s) of 67P released on Aug 14th are simply stunning, and show a wealth of detail. Can you tell us – approximately – the size of the larger “boulders” seen on the ‘neck’ of the comet there?

We have not checked for the size of the ‘boulders’ on the neck yet. We checked another area for boulders though and found a max ‘boulder’ radius of 15m there, so I would use this as an approximate for a max ‘boulder’ size on C-G.

The search is on now for a safe but interesting landing site for Philae. How often is OSIRIS taking images pf 67P now? Once daily? Several times a day? One every several days?

Concerning the landing site search: we will run 3 images sequences with decreased distance to the surface from about 70-50 km, 30 km, and 20 km distance. These sequences will last a good week each with significant gaps for the distance change. We will take several images a day for the merging of images.

And how often are you imaging 67P with OSIRIS at the moment?

Well, this is it on surface imaging, at the moment and up to landing. There are days with no imaging, days with WAC in support of navigation, days with calibration on stars or simply bias and darks, and days monitoring in gas and dust on regular basis (every 2 weeks right now). We carry limited lifetime items, so an image more now is an image less later in the mission. We thus need a good rationale to take an image to begin with.