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A Tale of Two Comets


If you’re interested in comets, it must feel like Christmas for you right now. ESA’s ROSETTA probe is not only sending back beautiful images of comet 67P but is about to drop its Philae lander onto the surface too, and another comet, Siding Spring, is going to “buzz” Mars today, passing the Red Planet at what is a sphincter-tighteningly close distance in astronomical terms. This is a huge story for people “into” space, and the media are picking up on it now too, so if you’re one of those sad, misguided people who believes space exploration and science is boring, and a waste of money, I’d avoid TV news programmes tonight, and probably stay off the internet too; it’s going to be owned by us space geeks today…!

At Mars, the international fleet of spaceprobes now studying the planet will all be trying, one way or another, to study and make measurements of the comet as it whooshes past, either taking pictures or trying to detect it with their suites of instruments. Here on Earth, professional telescopes in every country will turn towards Mars at some point today, hoping to see something, and amateur astronomers across the globe are also training their cameras and telescopes on the planet and comet, watching them slowly come together. It’s a worldwide astronomy festival, bringing people from all countries together, with a common goal – to try and see something very rare, and very special, and record it. Within a few hours camera shutters will start clicking, and clicking, and clicking…

And it’s a pretty safe bet that within hours of being taken, those photos will be online for everyone to see.

Look at all these “assets” NASA will be using to try and catch Comet Siding Spring racing past Mars…


It’s also a pretty safe bet that within a matter of hours, certainly within a couple of days of being taken, the images recorded by NASA’s hardware will be released to the world for everyone to share and enjoy, isn’t it? In the case of the Mars rovers, Opportunity and Curiosity, those images are going to be coming back so quickly, and released so freely, we may even get to see them before many of the mission scientists do, thanks to the time difference.

And that’s fantastic, isn’t it? Lots of things are described as a “once in a lifetime event” – pop concerts, royal weddings, etc – but a comet swooshing past Mars, almost close enough (in spacey terms) to reach out and touch? Now THAT’S a once in a lifetime event, and here, sitting at our computers, we’ll all be able to follow whatever happens as it happens, or very soon after. Why? Because the scientists behind these missions all “get” that it’s important to share data, especially images, with the public, not just because they actually PAY for their missions, through their taxes, and not only because they know it’s the right thing to do in this modern age, but because they WANT to share their excitement and experiences with the public. They’re obviously still excited by what they do, still in love with the universe, and still want to share that love with others.

Compare that selfless, joyous, generous attitude to the selfish, miserable, miserly, attitude shown by the ROSETTA mission’s OSIRIS camera team, who still, despite repeated pleas from space enthusiasts and the media, refuse to share their incredible high resolution images of the surface of comet 67P. They have taken hundreds, but released barely a handful, and those only grudgingly, when they absolutely had to. In contrast to the brilliant ESA team responsible for releasing pictures taken by the probe’s navcams, it’s clear the OSIRIS team hates releasing their pictures, and have what can only be described as contempt for the people “out here” wanting to see them. Too harsh? No. Absolutely not. And that was proved when they released this image…


…showing a single boulder tucked away in the top right corner of a frame filled with otherwise blank, empty space. That image is actually a crop of an area of a larger image, and that boulder has other boulders around it which they could easily have shown too. So releasing that was a deliberate, conscious, snarling, contemptuous, two fingered “F**k you!!!” to all the people asking to see more OSIRIS images. Either they thought no-one would notice, or they didn’t care if anyone noticed. Either way, some might say it was a rather childish and pathetic thing to do. I imagine they had a laugh about it that night, maybe even felt pretty smug about it, but seriously, it made them look very, very small and petty.

But wait. I keep saying “they” and “them”, talking in the plural, but that’s probably unfair. I shouldn’t tar the whole OSIRIS team with the same brush, I’m sorry.  I’m sure many of them actually want to share their gorgeous pictures with the world, because they love science, are excited by what they’re seeing, and are proud of their success. This must be frustrating for them, too.

No. This probably comes down to one person. Somewhere, sat behind a desk, in an office within fortress MPS, someone – an individual – is personally stopping the OSIRIS images being released to the world. That one person has the final say. That one person has the power to show the world comet 67P in all its gnarled, tortured, spiky, boulder-strewn glory. That one person has had access to all the OSIRIS images taken so far, has seen them all on their monitor, has shaken their head again and again at the bewildering structures they show…  and then decided that the public, who paid for them to be taken, who are desperate to see them, who have been told by ESA for *years* how stunning ROSETTA’s images would be, has no right to see them.

Shame on them.

But why? Why are they doing this? What possible reason could they have?

Well, there are two possibilities. Firstly, maybe they do genuinely believe it’s The Right Thing To Do. Maybe they honestly think that by holding back the images for 6 months they are protecting their scientists, and their careers, by ensuring that no-one else can beat them to the priceless science which will result from the pictures. That’s actually an admirable thing, and I would respect them for that IF they were releasing SOME of the images which simply look stunning but do not contain anything revolutionary. It is simply not possible that every single OSIRIS image taken shows something so new, so paradigm-shifting, so scientifically explosive that it can’t be given to the public right now. Whoever is sitting on the images could easily, easily release some which had been lowered in resolution, but which still showed things never seen before, without any risk of harm to their own career or the careers of their team. But they choose not to. Why?

The other explanation is that they simply do not want to share their images with the world, and simply do not care what the rest of us think, or want. They don’t think we’re worthy of them, and don’t think they owe us anything. Not a damned thing.

And that doesn’t just make me flaming mad, it makes me incredibly sad too.

Sad because, once, who knows how many years ago, the person sitting on the OSIRIS images, like Smaug curled up on his horde of gold, was actually once one of us – someone fascinated by science, the universe and how it works. They were once a starry-eyed kid, probably sat in a school library when they should have been outside kicking a ball around or chasing their friends, pouring over the gorgeous images in its astronomy books, reading about stars and planets and comets and other wonders. They once stood in their garden, or in their nearest park, or on top of a hill, clutching a star map, looked up at the starry sky, fell in love with it, and realised they wanted to know more about it…


They went through school, college, and university, learning all they could, gathering qualifications, still besotted with the universe, determined to dedicate their life to unravelling some of the mysteries of the cosmos and share their answers with the world. They got a job which allowed them to explore other worlds through the unblinking eyes of some of the most sophisticated cameras ever built, and see wonders never before seen by human eyes, as they had always dreamed of.

Jeez, what happened to that person?

If they’re reading this, and I know my blog *is* read by people on the ROSETTA mission, I have a question for them: at which point did you decide that, having worked your ass off to reach an amazingly powerful and privileged position – to be capable of taking and then sharing with the world the most stunningly beautiful images of a comet ever taken in the history of Mankind – you would personally stop people seeing those images?

What happened to you? What turned you from that starry-eyed space mad kid into the image Scrooge you are now?

As I’m writing this, images of Comet Siding Spring approaching Mars are being posted online, almost live. Taken by amateur telescopes in Australia and across the parts of the world where Mars is visible, they show something remarkable, something literally amazing. The people taking these photos could keep hold of them, process them, make them look prettier, write papers based on them, but no, they’re putting them online so quickly I can barely keep up. They are happy for the world to see them, and through them to share in this momentous day. It’s a wonderful thing. I feel all warm and fuzzy, and very very grateful to be seeing images of an event so special, so rare, they will still be being marvelled at in a thousand years time, when brave men and women are starting bold new lives on worlds orbiting other stars. It really is that historic.

Meanwhile, on someone’s hard drive(s) in an office in Germany, images of another comet, which are even more breathtaking, even more historic, are sitting uselessly in folders, imprisoned there by one person. Some of those images could be released now, right now, and within a few hours would be all over the internet, inspiring people around the world in the same way the images of Siding Spring will do in the months and years to come.

It’s ridiculous. It’s absolutely bloody ridiculous.

Seriously now, whoever is in charge of releasing the OSIRIS images – yes, you, if you’re reading this – stop ****ing about and let some of them free. You can do that without harming any careers, or losing any science, you know you can, just as you know it’s the right thing to do.

And if you don’t know that any more, if real life as a scientist has jaded and dulled you so much that you are happy to just keep those images to yourself without  feeling any obligation to the rest of us, sat here in our living rooms, offices, classrooms and bedrooms, then please, I ask you, think back to how you felt when you were that kid in the library, or in the park, or on top of that hill, newly-besotted with the universe, just embarking on that love affair with science. Remember that? Well, you have the power to make others feel that same way by sharing your lovely images with the world.

Use it.


3 Responses

  1. I agree to most arguments presented abbove. Let me explain the bureaucratic mechanism.

    The people we critisize are administration clerks and not scientists.

    I have praised the teams which run the whole thing and I repeat that here. They do brilliant jobs.

    The Principal Investigator is something really different .

    He acts like a house keeper – all doors are locked, the keys are in his pocket and the shouts and beggings of the crowd give him the feeling of power.

    Have a look at the ESA Rosetta Blog. Comments show that most european ‘followers’ understand how to behave – submissive.

    The blog editor plays with them. Repeatedly you don’t hear from her for days.
    Then she come back saying something like ‘ we are terribly busy these days … ‘

    Is somebody out there who can explain to me what a Blog Editor is busy with so that she cannot take care of the blog visitors?

    She then offers some image fragments and asks the crowd to ‘stitch’ them together!!

    Well with 80 members in the OSIRIS team one can understand they have no time for anything else.

    The most tragic result is this – and this is really my point:

    After TEN YEARS of travel Rosetta arrives at something nobody has seen before.

    The time window for Rosetta is – I guess – 20 weeks. In this period you must detect everything that might suggest or enforce the alteration of the mission plan, flight plan and most likely both.

    Every pair of eyes in the world might be helpful and are usually most appreciated by scientists.

    The MPS bureaucrats don’t care and thats the proof they are no scientists.

    A sample how ESA handles questions

    Here is an enthusiast who has probably found
    the most exiting feature of the whole comet
    (The Visible Crack in The Neck of C-G / 67P)

    Issakainen asks:
    Hi there! You have a wonderful project going on!
    A small observation:
    In the Navcam image of Sept 19, near the borders of the four partial images,
    is a thin line which looks as if the comet could start cracking in two pieces.
    Could you please comment how do you interpret this line? Thanks!
    J. Issakainen, Biologist, Finland ( 21/09/2014 at 14:19 )
    .found on: http://blogs.esa.int/rosetta/editors/Jouni

    ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

    ESA reacts

    THE BLOG MODERATOR “Science Blog Editor,ESA” Emily *Baldwin (21/09/2014 at 18:31)

    “Hi Jouni, please write your comments and questions on the relevant post, thanks!”
    ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

    AND *Baldwin IS THE EDITOR of the ‘relevant post’ she mentions.

    Useles to say that she didn’t answer his question at all.

  2. * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
    Another fine ESA example
    * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

    24/09/2014 at 13:32
    Rosetta Blog Visitor cosmo says:

    Oh, quite some action during the last two weeks.

    Thanks for the fortnightly update
    with some new bits of information too.

    Could you give me a hint why two distinct
    maneuvers were performed on last Wednesday?

    PS: I don’t understand why my last comment was censored!

    ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

  3. […] von der Rosetta-NavCam am 18. Oktober aufgenommen – etwa mit Dünen drauf? Weitere Artikel hier und hier, auch der Technologie-Tester für Mini-Asteroiden-Such-Satelliten Arkyd3 vor dem Start zur […]

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