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An open letter to the OSIRIS Project Team


ROSETTA has now been studying Comet 67P for two months, and thanks to the tremendous efforts of ESA, especially its hard-working Outreach and media teams, we are seeing a comet as never before. As you know, ESA is regularly releasing images taken by ROSETTA’s navcam camera, and with every one of these images released 67P is becoming more and more a real world to us; the features on its bizarre, alien surface are coming into sharper focus now, and we’re starting to make (a little!) sense out of what we’re seeing. Like all great space missions, ROSETTA’s goal is exploration in its purest form – we are seeing somewhere new, for the first time in human history, and thanks to the efforts of the ESA team releasing those navcam images, tens of thousands – and probably many, many more – of armchair explorers, amateur scientists and space enthusiasts around the world are joining in that exploration, and supporting and following this exciting, ambitious and history-making mission.

However, while the navcam images are impressive, everyone knows that ROSETTA carries an imaging system with much higher resolution, capable of taking extraordinarily detailed images – your system, OSIRIS.

Ever since ROSETTA was launched, ten long years ago, we have looked forward to seeing OSIRIS’s images of the comet, our appetites whetted by the spectacular views of asteroids taken en-route to 67P. Now ROSETTA has reached its goal, the navcam images are hinting at incredible features on its surface, and with Philae’s dramatic landing barely a month away understandably public interest in seeing the comet in all its grandeur and glory is climbing higher and higher every day.

But sadly, no OSIRIS images are being released to the world.

Having looked forward to seeing 67P through OSIRIS’s eagle eyes for a decade, this is frustrating a lot of people, as I am sure you are aware if you are following discussions taking place on the forums, blogs, Facebook pages and Twitter accounts of space enthusiasts and space journalists around the world.

I share that frustration. I have written about this here on my own blog, and on Facebook and Twitter too. I have emailed people on the OSIRIS team about this personally, but my emails have been ignored, so I am writing to you in this way to request, on behalf of myself, ROSETTA followers, armchair explorers, space enthusiasts and science reporters and journalists all around the world, that you release some of the images you have taken.

Many people believe that the images should be released because the ROSETTA mission is a publicly-funded mission, and the public who paid for it, through their taxes, have a right to see the images. Others believe that the images should be released because they would excite and inspire people around the world. Still others believe that the images should be released because they would allow the public to participate in one of the most exciting voyages of discovery ever made.

I agree with all those views, and share them. I also strongly believe that, in this modern age when people around the world can enjoy new images taken from Saturn and Mars daily, and can regularly see new images taken from the Moon and elsewhere, the continuing lack of OSIRIS images into the public domain is now nothing short of a disgrace, and needs to be addressed urgently. This wonderful mission, and the incredible scientific team behind it, and the members of the public following it, deserve better than to have their thirst for knowledge ignored like this.

I am not just writing this because, as one of those aforementioned “space enthusiasts” I want to see those pictures for myself. I want those pictures to be released because I want to share them with others. As someone very active in Outreach and Education I spend a lot of my “free time” giving illustrated talks to groups about astronomy and space. I want to be showing your beautiful pictures of 67P in the schools, church halls, and community centres I visit. I want to be showing them to classrooms full of bright eyed young children who are fascinated and excited by “space”. I want to show them to societies of engineers who are eager to learn what is happening “out there”. But maybe most of all I want – no, I need – to show them to the people who are NOT already fascinated by space. The young mums, struggling to pay weekly bills who wonder why millions is being spent on exploring distant worlds when they can’t afford to heat their children’s bedrooms; the pensioner couple who can’t understand why so much money was spent sending a robot to a space iceberg when they have to choose between a meal for them, or their dog; the jobless teenager who can’t make sense of the way a fortune is spent taking images of boulders on a chunk of ice far, far away from Earth when she can’t afford the bus fare to get her to a job interview on time. You have images which would – or at least might – help show these people why we explore space, why we spend that money, why we reach out for Out There when our own world and its people have so many problems. Keeping them to yourselves is wrong. It’s just wrong.

I understand how busy you are, trying to ensure Philae sets down as safely as possible, and no-one would want to interfere with that vital work by asking you to take new images just for public use. But by now you must have dozens, if not hundreds of images available for release.

I also understand that you are following the terms of your agreement with ESA by having a “proprietary period”, during which you are entitled to keep the images to yourselves. This makes sense, as it allows your scientists to look at the images before anyone else, and to use them for their research and for writing their crucially important papers and journals, etc. That’s how modern science works, and no-one sensible is questioning the need for that for a moment, or expecting to see all the images OSIRIS is taking. No-one begrudges the men and women who have worked on this mission for so many years the first chance to see and work with the images being taken by OSIRIS. But it simply cannot be the case that every single OSIRIS image taken so far shows something *so* important, *so* scientifically paradigm-shifting that it has to be locked up for 6 months. That’s simply not possible. There must be some OSIRIS images now that could be released without any risk to the mission or the careers of the hard-working, dedicated scientists involved.

You will be aware, I’m sure, that an Indian space probe recently arrived in Mars orbit, and within hours images taken by that probe were being released online, creating a media storm. Surely you must realise that the release of even a handful of OSIRIS images, showing close-ups of individual boulders, or crumbling ledges, or a single out-gassing vent, would raise the ROSETTA mission’s profile enormously, and really set the stage for the Philae landing?

It is my belief, and the belief of many others, that the OSIRIS team’s attitude towards the release of images is badly outdated and misguided. Many years ago it would have been the norm. But now, in this age of social media, scientists working on other missions are enthusiastically embracing the public’s fascination with the exploration of space, and allowing them to share in the sheer joy of that exploration by releasing images taken by their space probes and rovers, quickly and freely. The most striking and successful examples of this are NASA’s Mars rovers. Images taken by the MER “Opportunity” and the MSL” Curiosity” are posted online the next day, sometimes even within a matter of hours, allowing the public to virtually explore Mars for themselves, which they love.

The brave and bold decision to do this was taken by scientists involved in those missions before they were even built. Why? In his best-selling book “POSTCARDS FROM MARS” MER and MSL scientist Jim Bell says:

Steve Squyres and I made an unusual decision early on in this project. If we were lucky enough to land a rover (or two) on Mars safely, we decided that we would share the images with everyone without restrictions or embargoes, as quickly as possible, using the Internet. Both of us had been involved in previous projects where this had not been the case. Certainly there were technological limitations on data distribution in the days before the Internet. Sometimes, though, scientists who have put so many years of their career into a project feel entitled to “own” the data. It’s natural for some people to feel a close personal connection to images or other data that have been acquired at a cost of years of hard work and personal sacrifices. However, sometimes people can go too far and start referring to the data as “my images” or “my spectra.” In the long run, I believe that holding the cards too close to your chest like this can do more damage than good for science and exploration. We were privileged to have been entrusted with taxpayer dollars to run this mission. We have an obligation to share both our successes and failures openly and honestly with the general public. In the case of the rovers, when the images are decoded at jpl from the radio signals the rovers send from Mars, a computer program automatically generates a JPEG version of every image at the same time, and these get posted on a publicly accessible Web site (see “Additional Resources” at the end of the book) usually within a day of being taken on Mars. As best we can count, millions of people have been accessing and downloading these images from the Web. Some of our colleagues think we’re fools to have done this (“You’re giving your data away!”). It is true that we have been “scooped” a few times on scientific papers or media stories by some people who use these instant images to get a quick result published. To us, though, that’s a small price to pay to allow so many others—kids, teachers, space enthusiasts, laypeople, even members of Congress—to be able to follow along in near-real-time and to be a part of our amazing martian adventure.”

Thanks to this generous policy, every day people all around the world are able to see images taken on Mars just a matter of hours previously. School pupils in high tech classrooms in Europe and in barely furnished rooms in Africa are able to stride across Mars together, hand in hand. Today, thanks to the Internet, knowledge has no boundaries, knows no borders. Around the world scientists are embracing the possibilities this presents – but not the OSIRIS team, it seems. By withholding your images as you are doing, you are – unintentionally I’m sure – making ESA look outdated and selfish.

I therefore urge you all, in the strongest possible terms, to think very carefully about the harm this withholding of images is doing – unfairly – to ESA’s reputation and to the ROSETTA mission.

I also urge you to think for a moment about how huge the Outreach impact would be if you released some images. Within hours they would be on every space blog, forum and website, on the front pages of newspapers, and on TV news programmes around the world, showing the people of the world what an incredible mission ROSETTA is, how much ESA has achieved, and more.

And to be frank, ESA carried OSIRIS to Mars for you. You owe them.

The ROSETTA team did such a fantastic job getting the public interested in the mission, with all the cute animations, competitions and more, that by the time ROSETTA reached 67P countless thousands of people around the world, young and old, felt involved in the mission. Now that ROSETTA is orbiting 67P and taking, we are told, “stunning images”, those same people are desperate to see those images, but can’t.

I hope you change your minds soon, and release some of your spectacular images. They must show wonders the like of which we have never seen before. More importantly, those images have the ability to inspire a generation of children to become scientists – perhaps the scientists who, following in your footsteps, will help guide a manned spacecraft down to the surface of a comet, on some future anniversary of Philae’s historic landing.

Again, on behalf of myself, and the countless thousands of frustrated ROSETTA followers – armchair explorers, space enthusiasts, science reporters and journalists – scattered all around the world, desperate to see 67P in the same glorious detail you are seeing it, I request that you release some of the images OSIRIS has taken, now, and not in six months time.


Stuart Atkinson.

9 Responses

  1. [54] ESA Blog-
    my comment (see below)Comment immediately under mod.


    Haerwe says: 08/10/2014 at 14:01
    Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    According to OSIRIS NAC performance data the image resolution is stated to be LESS than 2 cm .(two centimetres!)

    It is expected to “see” solids being ‘exhailed’ thru the vents and chimneys Rosetta is planned to look at..

    I describe this in detail since – based on experience – I am certain Sierks will apply the usuall image policy.

  2. Beautifully expressed and written. The lack of awesome images is surely reducing some public interest. That would be a major shame.

  3. […] Meter groß. Der Ruf nach den hochauflösenden Bildern der wissenschaftlichen Kamera Rosettas war zurecht immer lauter geworden, und die heutige Lieferung mag eine Reaktion darauf […]

    • Daniel, I suggested to ESA in Nov 2012 that the 21 PIs ought to prepare short 5min executive summaries of their experiments and longer 30min progs on how the data would be gathered and processed and then released. There were already interesting descriptions of instrument tests on frozen ground near Berlin and on glaciers in the Alps to help visualize what would be happening eventually with the comet. Sadly that did not occur although I was in German for May 2013. Bill

  4. […] höchstens auf den ersten, flüchtigen Blick überzeugen. Die zurecht laut gewordene und in den vergangenen Tagen erneut aufgeflammte Kritik an der Embargopolitik wäre bereits mit hochauflösenden, zeitnah und […]

  5. The success to date of the Rosetta mission thrills me beyond words. Simply stunning. A wholly remarkable achievement.

    We are seeing things never seen before.

    The tiny minded harboring of high resolution imagery by ESA Rosetta team, though, completely sours this stunning success, and is akin to a tolerating an unwashed relative at a beautiful wedding.

    Such decisions yet again highlight the pathetic, selfish nature of the human species. Will we ever simply grow up? Who is making these decisions that bring such shame to the program in the very moment of their exploratory triumph?

    An albatross of idiocy hung on the neck of beautiful science. for what?

  6. […] höchstens auf den ersten, flüchtigen Blick überzeugen. Die zurecht laut gewordene und in den vergangenen Tagen erneut aufgeflammte Kritik an der Embargopolitik wäre bereits mit hochauflösenden, zeitnah und […]

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