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ROSETTA arrives at 67P

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I know this is old news now, but straight after the ESA webcast last Wednesday morning we headed off up to Edinburgh, for a short break combining camping with the world famous Edinburgh Festival, so I’m only now getting around to writing this. And I do want to write up The Big Day because I wrote so much here leading up to it that it’s only fair I close that particular circle.

So, last Wednesday morning I got up bright and early – woken by the cat at 5am, as I am every morning, and then went back to bed until 6 – and was able to write a few words here about the significance of the day, a post which was later quoted from as part of The Planetary Society’s blog’s coverage of landing day, before settling down with my laptop on my knee and a cuppa beside me at 9am and waiting for the ESA webcast to begin…

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There was a BIG crowd of journalists packed into the room as the webcast began, and I am sure I spotted my fellow astro blogger and comet enthusiast Daniel Fischer – who had gone along to cover the event for The Planetary Society – lurking in the audience…

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As are all ESA webcasts nowadays, the ROSETTA ARRIVES webcast was a very slick, very polished production, which reminded me somewhat of a mini Eurovision Song Contest. It featured smartly-dressed hosts, interviews with various beaming-with-pride (and rightly so!) ESA officials, key mission personnel, and assorted politicians who had supported the mission, interspersed with “catch up” clips describing Rosetta’s mission and journey to date, complete with Europop music.  One of the very best interviews was with mission scientist Matt Taylor, a big tattooed, bearded giant of a man who always Tweets and posts on Facebook very entertainingly and honestly, with a great sense of fun and excitement, and his chat with the female interviewer was really enjoyable as he struggled to contain his own bubbling excitement…

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I’m sure the interviewer blushed a little as Matt looked right at her and, positively purring with pleasure, described ROSETTA as “The sexiest space mission ever…” Great fun!

And so the webcast and the event continued, the hosts doing a great job of essentially filling time until telemetry showed that ROSETTA’s manouvering burn had indeed left her flying alongside 67P, and when that moment came and went without any drama or incident there were cheers all round and the excitement really began to pick up.

Without being churlish or ungrateful here, I think it’s fair to say that, as polished as the webcast and the event itself both were, they were both rather frustrating for the space enthusiasts watching, because until quite late on they didn’t tell or show us anything new. Yes, the “Are we there yet?” Rosetta animations were cute (awwww…. love those!) and the interviews were informative, in a tap-your-fingers-on-the-table-we-already-knew-that kind of way, but come on, be honest, most of us were watching because we were desperate to see the first close-up images of the comet sent back by ROSETTA. As you can see from the pic at the top of this post, the stage was dominated by three large screens, which showed video clips and images throughout the event, and they were the focus of many people’s attention because, in the run-up to the webcast it had been said that new images would be processed as soon as possible so they could be shown during the event, which I think we all assumed to mean would be shown ON THE SCREENS AT THE FRONT. But it didn’t quite work out that way. As the event proceeded the big screens stayed frustratingly free from any new images, even ones taken in the previous couple of days.

And then the hostess introduced Holger Sierks, the Principal Investigator of the OSIRIS camera being carried by ROSETTA. And when he appeared I thought “This is it! They’re going to show new images of the comet!” And they did… kind of…

A new image appeared all right, but shown on a large screen behind Holger Sierks’ shoulder, not on any of the big screens in the auditorium or broadcast as part of the webcast!

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Shown in this way the image of the comet was rather blurred and details were hard to make out, but it was clearly way, waaaay better than anything seen before, with stunning detail hinted at. So I did what any self-respecting astro blogger and Outreacher would do: I grabbed a screenshot, cropped the comet image from it, enhanced it, and put it up on Facebook and Twitter for everyone to see… 🙂

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And soon it was being Shared and reTweeted like crazy! There was such a voracious appetite for new images that people watching the webcast were desperate for new images, and lots of people were very grateful to be shown even that blurry screengrab. It was poor quality compared to an official release, yes, but still clear enough to show show that 67P was… bizarre, bizarre almost beyond words. Not smooth, with a few knobs and nubs here and there, and a scattering of craters, but a tortured, spiky, spiny world, with cliffs, outcrops and ridges, and what looked very much like a BIG crater at one end, looking for all the world like a gaping mouth…

A rubber duck? I don’t think so. This was totally, extremely alien. Nothing looking like that ever bobbed about in a bathtub. Things that look like that crawl out of the tap or explode out of the water, shrieking and screaming, and clawing and biting at you, while you’re playing with your rubber duck…

While I was busy working on the first image, another image was shown over the PI’s shoulder…

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…which hinted at even more fascinating detail, including some very steep cliffs and scarps! Clearly 67P was going to be a wonderful world to explore over the coming days, weeks and months, and there are going to be many surprises lurking in those shadows…

By now time was really ticking on, and we should have been on our way north, to Edinburgh, but I wanted to see if any new images would be released formally by the ROSETTA OSIRIS team before the webcast ended, and to my absolute delight they did. This is what appeared on the mission Facebook and Twitter feeds as the end of the webcast approached…

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Oh my… look at that… it’s hard to know where to begin to describe what OSIRIS has captured in that image. The comet nucleus is a tortured, twisted, gnarled thing, covered with spikes and peaks, smeared with bright and dark areas, and yes, there ARE craters on it, as we had all suspected and hoped. I was quickly able to sharpen and enhance that image, and came up with this…

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That is a quite brutally beautiful place, unlike any body we’ve seen anywhere in the solar system ever before. And seeing that breathtaking view of the alien landscape of 67P, two thoughts sprang to mind. Firstly – what an incredible adventure it is going to be, watching that bizarre world waking up over the next year…

And secondly – where the HELL are they going to land Philae on THAT??

Soon after the webcast finished, and, more than pleased with what had been shown, and full of excitement about the discoveries and science ahead of us, Stella and I set off for Scotland. On the way I kept checking my phone for new images, and by the time we had reached our campsite a couple more had been released, including the closest views of a comet’s surface so far…

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Look at that! is that a crack, a fissure, in the surface? And look at this view…

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Just bewilderingly beautiful…

As I’ve said before, with quite brilliant timing the ROSETTA arrival coincided with a holiday in Scotland, so instead of following the post-arrival goings on from the comfort of my sofa, via my laptop, for the next few days I had to keep track of the ROSETTA mission via my smartphone whilst wandering the bustling streets of Edinburgh, one of the most ancient towns in Britain. But that was okay, there wasn’t exactly a flood of new images coming back anyway, so I was able to keep checking in briefly on the mission whenever I found a WiFi hotspot in “Auld Reekie” and then take a closer look at the images back in the tent, connecting to the campsite WiFi via my laptop. And the images I saw there, either on my phone’s small screen or my laptop’s larger one, were just brilliant, each one more bizarre, more warped, more alien than the last…

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That image, taken August 7th, reveals a LOT of detail on the comet’s surface. Let’s look at some particularly interesting areas… First, let’s look at the large crater (?) at the top of the image. Those are some very impressive cliffs there, I wonder how high they are..?

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And the big crater – the “mouth” of the nucleus, if you want to think of it that way – is obviously a very complicated feature too, with multiple cliffs and what look like a lot of large boulders strewn across its floor…

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That image, above, is the most recent NAVCAM image (no more new OSIRIS images since Wednesday, of course… sigh…) taken August 8th and I think it’s just beautiful, don’t you? And with a little “work” on it…

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…you realise just how many mysteries 67P is hiding from us. One thing that did jump out at me was the number of what appear to be landslides or spills of material on the surface, i.e. fanned-out aprons of material or falls of boulders/stones beneath some of the sharp cliffs…

ROSETTA_NAVCAM_20140808 landslides

So, here we are… ROSETTA is now safely flying alongside 67P, and has begun her detailed reconaissance of the nucleus to assist the mission team looking for a landing site for Philae later in the year. I hope we get to see some more OSIRIS images soon – it’s hard to imagine just how much detail will be visible on those by now – but we probably won’t get to see any more of those until Wednesday..? What a shame. 😦 In the meantime, these NAVCAM images are *fantastic*, thank you SO much ESA! Sometime in the not too distant future, when we’ve seen and photographed the comet from all angles, there’ll be a basic map of the nucleus drawn up, maybe even with the largest, most obvious features named (provisionally) and then 67P will really start to feel like a world in its own right, not just one of countless icy lumps drifting around Out There…

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One Response

  1. […] auf Team Ebene.” Auch eine weitere 3D-Fassung früherer OSIRIS-Bilder und allerlei Essays hier (später), hier, hier und […]

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