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Wanderers…

Every few years a space exploration-related film comes along which actually *gets* it. It gets the beauty and drama of space exploration. It gets the beauty of what’s “out there”. It gets it Right. Every few years a film comes along which, with its breathtaking images and optimistic message has the power to excite and inspire a generation, and leaves even the most hardened space cynic picking their jaw off the floor.

Ok. Hands up who thought I was talking about “Interstellar” there… ?

No, I wasn’t. I know that’s the movie of the moment, and huge amounts of bandwidth has been eaten up with glowing reviews, praising to the sky its accurate science and its deep message and meaning. Review after review claims that it will be as inspirational as 2001 was when it was released. So I imagine you were thinking it was Interstellar I was talking about.

No, it wasn’t. I was talking about a film called “Wanderers”, posted yesterday without any fanfare on the Vimeo video sharing site.

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Within hours this amateur film – just three and a half minutes long – was going viral in the space community. Tweets, blog posts and Facebook status updates singing its praises were soon sweeping around the globe like a tsunami. It was touching people in a startling way. All this was happening while I was, to use a quaint old phrase, “away from keyboard”, so I wasn’t aware of the buzz; when I got home and checked my email I was alerted to it by my great friend Bev, who lives in Australia, and then it was my jaw’s turn to hit the floor.

If you haven’t seen it, “Wanderers”, created by Erik Wernquist, is something very special, trust me. It manages to cram more breathtaking visuals, more story, more spectacle and wonder into its three and a half minutes than the bloated “Interstellar” did in its three ass-numbing hours. I know it’s unfashionable – maybe some might even see it as disloyal for a space enthusiast like myself – to not write gushingly and reverentially about the latest Nolan epic, but I have to be honest, I was crushingly disappointed by it. I had looked forward to seeing it ever since that first enigmatic “teaser trailer” appeared on YouTube, because it promised so much, looked so beautiful, seemed to be The Film We Had All Been Waiting For. But as the credits rolled at the end I sat there deflated. Oh yes, as everyone is saying, the hard science is fantastic, accurate and very well done, so no wonder astronomers and physicists, who have had to suffer years of excruciatingly bad science in films, are raving about it. And there are some masterful scenes – at the start, for example, when a disgusted Coup is sat in the school office, being told by a teacher how the Moon landings were faked, and every scene featuring one of the cubist, walking Monolith robots is stolen by them. But it is a cold, heartless film, not uplifting in any way, which will stop it being inspiring for much of its mainstream audience. After watching it I didn’t want to go into space, and conquer new worlds, I just wanted to phone the Samaritans. Or my mum.

Worst of all, “Interstellar” spends the first 3/4 of its running time crawling along a nice straight scientific road, being painstakingly accurate and earnest, and true to science and scientists, but then it suddenly guns its engine, screeches around a corner and heads down a side road marked “New Age Hippy Crystal-hugging Bullshit” and goes all trippy on its audience, whining on about love, and gravity, and throwing in a time travel paradox like something out of an old – and bad – episode of Doctor Who. When it did that I just sagged and actually let out an “Oh no…” sigh in the cinema which I’m sure they heard in the back row. So disappointing. And as I said, I know it’s trendy – if not expected – for space bloggers and writers to just trot out an “I loved it!” “It was magnificent!” review, but I can’t do that. It was a good film yes, with some great effects and some fantastic scenes scattered through it, and I’m sure that for people who “get” the physics of black holes and time dilation and relativity it was as thrilling as a One Direction concert for a twelve year old girl, but it was waaaay too long, the dialogue was corny and often drowned by the music (some claim that was intentional, if that’s true, well, whatever…), and the ending was pants. Not many people are saying that, so either I’m completely wrong or others just aren’t being honest with themselves or their readers. You go see it and judge for yourself.

In stark contrast, “Wanderers” is a three and a half minutes of utter beauty and inspiration. It shows, in a series of short scenes, humans “wandering” some of the worlds of the solar system, and every scene is heart-stoppingly beautiful. It depicts a bright  (far) future where Mankind has spread out from Earth, and now flies dirigibles across the surface of Mars…

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(look! Victoria Crater! Squeeeeee!!!!)

… flies through the rings of Saturn…

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..and even strides across the icy plains of Europa…

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Other beautiful scenes show people jumping off the towering ice cliffs of Miranda, flying like birds through the skies of Titan, and more. One of my favourite scenes has to be the one showing colonies on Saturn’s moon Iapetus, lush and fragile green domes perched along the crest of the bizarre mountain range which forms its equator…

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Oh come on… look at that… isn’t that just glorious?

“Wanderers” isn’t just accurate and inspirational, it’s obviously a true labour of love. There are so many exquisite little touches in it which bring it to life and make it seem more real than any big budget Hollywood sci fi epic could ever hope to be. Look at this…

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See inside that crater, bottom right? The colonists have carved the “Ying & Yang” symbol into the rock. Space enthusiasts will “get” that reference in a heartbeat – it’s a tribute to that moon having a light and a dark side. You would never, EVER see that in a Hollywood film, it would never occur to a big budget producer to include a human message like that. That’s what sets “Wanderers” aside.

Oh, and did I mention its narration is a voice over from Carl Sagan?

If you’ve seen the film already, I imagine it’s left a lasting impression on you too. If you haven’t, well, go watch it now. This link will take you right to it…

WANDERERS

Seriously, I don’t know what more I can say. It’s just three minutes of wonder and beauty that is more inspiring than anything I’ve seen in a long, long time. I don’t want to see “Interstellar” again, I’m really not that bothered. But I want to watch “Wanderers” again right now after writing this post, so I think I will.

Thank you, Erik Wernquist, for giving us back our sense of wonder.

Comet catch up…

Time for a quick catch-up with the latest navcam images of Comet 67P released by the ESA ROSETTA team…

True to their word, the ESA team is continuing to release their quartets of navcam images. A couple of days ago, ESA released this rather beautiful image, which really does show how much activity is going on now. Look at all those jets and plumes shooting off the comet…

Comet_on_20_November_NavCam

…and when you tweak that a bit… ok, a LOT…

Comet_on_20_November_NavCam e

WHOOSH! Gas and dust EVERYWHERE!!! 🙂

That’s just crying out for an artistic treatment, just for fun, so here goes…

Comet_on_20_November_NavCam e2b

And then yesterday another quartet of images was released…

Comet_on_26_November_NavCam

Look closely and you’ll see that those four images don’t line up very well. That’s because in the gaps between each individual image being taken the comet rotated a little bit, so it’s not possible – or at least extremely hard – to create a single, seamless image from those four frames. I tried and failed absolutely miserably. I’ll have another go later, when I have more time. What I was able to do though was crop some areas of that mosaic to isolate and highlight striking features on the surface, so take a look at these…

ESA_Rosetta_NAVCAM_141126_A b

Now *that’s* a heck of a view isn’t it? Love that jagged edged crater down at the bottom centre there…

ESA_Rosetta_NAVCAM_141126_D b2

And that’s a interesting vista, too… But this is my fave, I think…

ESA_Rosetta_NAVCAM_141126_D b

Love the dim light on the inside of the smaller lobe there, very atmospheric… 🙂

And with a bit of tweaking more jet activity becomes obvious, too…

ESA_Rosetta_NAVCAM_141126_A2

So, AGAIN, a huge thank you to the team at ESA releasing the navcam pics. Seriously, if they didn’t, we wouldn’t even know Rosetta was still AT 67P, because the OSIRIS team continues to keep all their lovely images to themselves. Oh, the wonders they must be seeing now… I know one thing, if they don’t release all those images after their beloved 6 month “proprietary period” as expected, as they are supposed to, there will be hell on. I honestly wouldn’t put it past them to only release a bare minimum of images, and keep hold of the really good stuff for a whole longer, claiming “technical problems” or something. Cyncial? Yep. Unfair? Possibly. But they’ve done themselves no favours, and to be blunt I simply don’t trust them to do the right thing, I don’t. We’ll have to wait and see. I hope I’m proved wrong, I really do.

One thing the OSIRIS team definitely COULD do now is to release their annotated maps and charts of the comet, which they must have by now. In fact, I know they have, because a couple of weeks ago at that big science conference in the US some images were shown on social media which had features named, so there absolutely must be, hidden within the OSIRIS team’s fortress, charts and maps with the comet’s major features labelled and named. I bet there are charts and maps pinned on walls, and on the back of doors, and draped over desks, covered in names, and a big warning sign on the fortress door, written in blood…

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What possible reason could they have for keeping those names to themselves? Ok, playing Devil’s Advocate, keeping their *images* of the comet to themselves makes a kind of sense, because they are protecting their first dibs on the science. But keeping the names they’ve given to landscape features secret? Really? What’s the point of that? What does that protect? Who is going to write glory-stealing, career-threatening, science-stealing papers if the OSIRIS team lets us know what the big cliffs on the larger lobe have been christened, or that huuuuge crater on the front of the small lobe?

Just to be clear, this is NOT something ESA can do. ESA has no say over what data – images, names, whatever – is released by the science teams on the mission, particularly the OSIRIS team. Basically, ESA built a big space bus and offered to take a load of tourists on a trip to a comet in it, if they paid for their tickets.

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Now the bus has reached the comet, those tourists are hanging out the windows and clicking away like crazy, taking fantastic pictures, but thanks to the small print on their tickets – written long, long ago, before the bus company got to grips with the whole “outreach and education” thing – they are under no obligation to show those images to the bus driver or their company. One can only hope that for future bus trips, the bus company only sells tickets to people willing to share their snaps with them, and the people who paid for their bus to be built in the first place…

Why is this a big deal? Well, it’s not, not really. We don’t NEED to know those names, and see those maps, but of we could oit would be fascinating, don’t you think? Knowing the names of features on a new map of a totally new body – a -planet, moon, or in this case a comet – is always cool, it makes that body seem more real somehow. The NASA teams on the MER and CASSINI missions always release names of newly-discovered features really quickly, which really brings the places they see to life.

And this is just One More Thing with the OSIRIS team, isn’t it? This is something the OSIRIS team absolutely could do without any risk to their careers or science, something they could do to boost public interest in and support for the mission as a whole, and keep it in the media spotlight now the Philae landing is history, but they’re choosing not to. Some might say that it’s just the OSIRIS team continuing to be petty and selfish, and unsupportive of the mission and ESA.

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Anyway, they’re obviously not going to do it, so why am I so bothered? Well, as regular readers wll know I do a lot of Outreach work, giving talks in schools and to community groups, and it would be brilliant to put up a picture of 67 and tell people the names of the cliffs, and craters, shown on it. People love maps, and charts, and I know that if the OSIRIS team released a few labelled charts that would go down fantastically well… but clearly they have no interest in, or appreciation of the value of Outreach and Education, the science is everything to them. Such a shame. Such a great, great shame. 😦

Never mind! Thanks to the brilliant ESA team we have the navcam images to drool over, so thanks again to them for keeping the hungry space enthusiast hordes fed, it is greatly appreciated. 🙂

Book review: “The Mathematics Devotional” – Clifford A. Pickover

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I have very few regrets in my life, I’m happy to say. Ok, so I didn’t marry Farrah Fawcett Majors as I wanted to when I was a teenage “Charlies Angels” fan, and I wasn’t the first Briton to land on Mars, and we still haven’t detected an alien radio signal, but generally no, no regrets. One of my greatest regrets though is that I am hopeless with numbers, absolutely hopeless. They do nothing for me, nothing at all. I look at an equation and I’m like a dog looking at an opera score. I’m not stupid, don’t get me wrong. I’m not a complete number illiterate. I can hold my own in the modern world with the basic arithmetic needed to go shopping, stuff like that, but anything more advanced? Naaah. I turn away from it. I don’t “do” numbers.

Number-Phobia-Arithmophobia-Sacred-Frightened-Girl

Why? Oh, I don’t know… maybe it’s because I’ve always just naturally been more comfortable with, and using, words… maybe I didn’t work hard enough at mathematics at school (actually, I know I didn’t, but in my defence here my maths teachers were all, without exception, godawful, remote and sterile and boring, antimatter teachers to my witty, inspiring and supportive English teachers)… maybe I’m just One Of Those People who hate numbers. I don’t know. But have always had a huge respect for people who are as comfortable with numbers as I am with words. I envy them too, if I’m honest, because I can’t help thinking, as I watch them stood in front of their scrawl-covered blackboards or hunched over their textbooks, drooling over equations and formulae that might as well be written in alien hieroglyphs to me, that I’m missing out on something.. magical. Just last weekend I was with some of my astronomy friends at an observing weekend and a couple of them started discussing how an equation worked (or something) and they became so animated about it, spoke about it with such joy and passion, that I felt like Tiny Tim staring in through that toy shop window, looking at all the beautiful things he would never have. They were living, at that moment, in a world absolutely alien to me.

I have often wondered how mathematicians can find numbers so beautiful. I just haven’t been able to get my head around it. But when I read “The Mathematics Devotional“, a new book by Clifford A. Pickover, author of the best-selling “The Math Book”, I had my eyes opened. I finally, finally, “got it”.

math-devotional-cover

The book isn’t a reference book, or a text book. It’s not full of those equations and formulae which leave me cowering in terror. Instead it is a collection of quotes from mathematicians across the ages, one for each day of the year, each one illustrated with an eye-catching (if sometimes migraine-inducing) fractal image. The cover proclaims it to be “Celebrating the wisdom and beauty of mathematics” and I have to agree. Reading the quotes in the book really does show you how mathematics CAN be beautiful and exciting, and shows that the men and women who devote their lives to the study of mathematics are every bit as passionate and emotional and, yes, as poetic as those who stare at the sky drinking in the light from distant galaxies and star clusters, as these quotes taken from the book show…

Perhaps an angel of the Lord surveyed an endless sea of chaos, then troubled it gently with his finger. In this tiny and temporary swirl of equations, our cosmos took shape.”
— Martin Gardner, “Order and Surprise,” 1950

Fractal geometry will make you see everything differently. There is a danger in reading further. You risk the loss of your childhood vision of clouds, forests, flowers, galaxies, leaves, feathers, rocks, mountains, torrents of water, carpet, bricks, and much else besides. Never again will your interpretation of these things be quite the same.”
–Michael F Barnsley, “Fractals Everywhere,” 2000

And that’s it, you see? The truth of the matter is mathematicians see things differently. Not only that, but they see things – perhaps a whole level of Nature – that we can’t. Watching them work, listening to them talk, I envy mathematicians, because something tells me, has always told me, that they see a whole universe I don’t, and never will. And I know that no matter how hard I push on the particular wardrobe door they go through, I will open it and emerge into their Narnia myself. And yes, that makes me sad.

Not too sad though. I’m happy being a writer and an astronomer. I have done, and seen things they never will. I have stood laughing, turning around and around, laughing like a child, beneath a sky painted scarlet, crimson and ruby by the curtains, streamers and beams of an auroral storm so bright it cast shadows; I have sat in the centre of an ancient stone circle and watched a comet rise, tail first, behind snow-dusted mountains; I have stared up and seen fireballs falling from the heavens like shells in an artillery bombardment, flaring and flashing as they fell; I’ve taught probably tens of thousands of children about astronomy and space, opening their eyes to the wonders and the beauty of the universe, hopefully igniting sparks of inspiration and excitement in them that will stay with them forever, and maybe even lead to them becoming scientists themselves, making discoveries themselves; I’ve had my heart melt like chocolate as I knelt beside my telescope as a young girl, balancing on her tiptoes, peered into its eyepiece at a faint comet and turned to me, smiling, and whispered “It looks like a fairy… thank you…”. I go out on a clear night and I can *feel* the glories of the Cosmos. When I look up I look out into an ocean of suns, great beacons of light. I can lift my hand to the sky and almost feel it tingling as the light and heat of galaxies billions of light years away brushes my skin, and more. I bet mathematicians haven’t done half of those things, and many of them would probably find them as uninspiring and unmoving as I find their sorcerous spells of calculus and probability.

But then I read a quote like this in the book…

What if I told you that you don’t have to sail across an ocean or fly into space to discover the wonders of the world? They are right here, intertwined with our present reality. In a sense, within us. Mathematics directs the flow of the universe, lurks beyond its shapes and curves, holds the reins of everything from tiny atoms to the biggest stars.”
— Edward Frenkel, “Love and Math,” 2013

…and I realise that they have a beauty all of their own to drown in. I was wrong about them. They’re not all androids, or Sheldons. They’re people, real people, just like us. And there’s as much poetry in their souls as there is in the souls of stargazers. And that’s quite a revelation for someone like me who was turned off by numbers at an early age.

Wonderful book, I love it to bits. And it has given me a new and real appreciation for mathematics – something none of my Pink Floyd maths teachers ever managed to do.

“THE MATHEMATICS DEVOTIONAL”
Clifford A Pickover
Sterling Books
ISBN 978-1-4549-1322

Brace yourselves…

As I write this it’s 7am on a grey, cold, Cumbrian morning, and I’m at a Field Centre in a valley in the shadow of high, mist-wreathed hills in the middle of nowhere, just past the back of beyond. Perfect for writing about a comet…!

Yesterday ESA put out another of its gorgeous images, this time an anaglyph (3D image) made from pictures taken by Philae’s ROLIS descent camera. If you haven’t already seen it, here you go, it’s an absolute beauty…

ROLIS_descent_image_in_3D

…or rather, it *could* be, because with a little bit of processing that image, which isn’t bad in the first place, can be made a lot better. I know it sounds churlish, but I’m a bit surprised that, having taken the time and trouble to acquire the images and then make them into an anaglyph, ESA don’t take just another half hour to make it into something a bit crisper. I took that image and with a bit of playing around had turned it into this…

ROLIS_descent_image_in_3Db

…which I think you’ll agree is much crisper and more detailed. Not suggesting for a moment that I’m *better* at this than ESA, haha! 🙂 Just pointing out that with a little more work things could be improved, that’s all. And up at the top of that image, that view just cried out to be cropped and enhanced a little more, to create this dizzying vista… Ok, everyone… brace yourselves… and click on this next image… **now**…

omg view 3d

I did warn you! 🙂

And down at the bottom there, the STILL un-named Big Crater looks glorious when the 3D spotlight is shone on it…

ROLIS_descent_image_in_3Ddj

I really hope ESA start releasing some of the names they’ve given features on 67P soon, they must have a whole comet atlas by now…

More soon!

 

67P – Normal service has been resumed…

A week and a bit after Philae’s historic (and, it seems, multiple!) landing on 67P, things are getting back to what passes for “normal” for the ROSETTA mission – ESA has released another lovely navcam mosaic, and the OSIRIS team hasn’t, but they get a Pass at the moment because I’m sure they’re incredibly busy scouring their latest images for any trace of poor little Philae, lost somewhere in the dark, down there on the chaotic surface of the comet. It seems they have a *rough* idea where it is, based on those jaw-dropping images taken by OSIRIS showing the lander’s flight path towards and then away from its original landing site – during a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” online Q&A the team suggested that Philae came down somewhere in the Big Crater (WHY HAS IT STILL NOT GOT A NAME????) instead of on its edge. Hope the find Philae soon…

Here’s the latest mosaic released by ESA…

Comet_on_17_November_NavCam

Hmmm, nice jet in the middle there, coming out of the “neck”. That image was taken on Nov 17th, and clearly shows the comet is well and truly coming to life now. Wont be long, I think, until we see some serious out-gassing from the nucleus, and that will make for some dramatic images, you’ll see. In the meantime, here’s my latest “artistic take” on the comet…

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What struck me about that latest navcam is the gorgeous view of the towering cliffs on the inside of the small lobe, over there on the right. Wow, look at that… I couldn’t resist…

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Well done to ESA for resuming the release of navcam images, and good luck to the OSIRIS team in their hunt for Philae.

Book review: “Mars 3D” by Jim Bell

mars 3d peg

Regular readers of this blog will probably have an inkling that Mars is “my planet”, and suspect I have something of a soft spot for Opportunity, one of the two original Mars Exploration Rovers which landed on the Red Planet in 2004. Ok, guilty as charged. The MER mission has been an outstanding success, one of the most successful in the whole of the so-called “Space Age”, not just because of the incredible science which has come out of the mission, but because the rover team has, from the very start, shared their images with the public openly and generously – in contrast to some other teams I might mention, but won’t (cough… OSIRIS… cough)…

Since the MERs landed many books have been published featuring images taken by the rovers, and that’s no surprise, as many of the photographs Spirit and Opportunity have beamed back to Earth are so beautiful, so artistic that they look great on a computer monitor but scream out to be printed on the glossy pages of an outsize book which weighs the same as a small asteroid. The sweeping martian panoramas assembled from images taken by Spirit and Opportunity, showing cliffs, mountains and endless rippling plains of dust, are, I have thought for a long time, photographic works of art every bit as lovely and as important as the landscape photographs of Ansell Adams. They have brought Mars to life, made it a real place, for millions of people in a way which has never been done before.

A few years ago, Spirit and Oppy were joined on Mars by a bigger, badder rover – “Curiosity”, a nuclear powered, laser-toting minster truck of a rover, and like its smaller cousins Curiosity has sent back countless stunning images.

The landscape images taken by the rovers are spectacular. But because the Mars rovers are fitted with pairs of cameras it’s possible to combine two images of the same view to make a 3D image – an anaglyph – and for years now armchair explorers and professional scientists alike have sat at their computers, put on a pair of 3D glasses (the good old fashioned red-and-blue kind, not the fancy pants “sunglasses” you forget to give back when you go and see a 3D film at your local multiplex these days) and for a few moments GO to Mars by looking at 3D images of its landscape. There are thousands of such images online, free for all to drool over, but so far very few books have featured them.

Jim Bell’s “Mars 3D” is, as its name suggests, a book of the best of these 3D images sent back from Mars. It is a beautifully produced book. Unlike many “picture books” published today, which are so flimsy they feel like they were printed on tissue paper, It feels reassuringly hefty in your hand, there’s a weight to it. That’s because it’s a good, solid book, well bound, with very high quality paper and perfect printing, which is absolutely vital for a book of 3D images. It’s not a ridiculous size either – as you can see from the photo at the top it’s a book you can read on your lap, curled up in a corner, you don’t need an industrial crane to lift it off the ground.

The revised edition, I’m pleased to say, comes with a pair of 3D glasses to allow you to view the pictures. Didn’t the original? Well, no. That had a strange kind of “3D viewer” built into it, like one of those old fashioned viewers you see in antique shops.It must have seemed a good idea at the time, but it’s not very practical.

3d viewers

I didn’t find it worked particularly well for me, and I actually ended up using the old faithful loose pair of 3D glasses I keep next to my PC for viewing anaglyphs online instead, and they worked much better. So, yes, very happy to see the glasses, they give the reader a lot more freedom.

But what about the most important thing – the 3D pictures??

Well, the original edition’s photos, all taken by Spirit and Opportunity, were all stunning, and they still are. Put on the glasses and open the book at any page and you will be magically transported to Mars, looking at a rock-strewn plain, a boulder-surrounded crater, a crumbling clifftop, and much more. With the glasses on you really feel like you can reach into the page and run your fingers over the sharp edges of ancient, wind-sculpted rocks, or trace out the shapes of meteorites which fell out of the pink martian sky countless millennia ago. The 3D images showing close-ups of the surfaces of rocks are so crisp, so clear, looking at them you can almost imagine you’re the geologist on a future manned mission to Mars, kneeling down in the cinnamon-hued dust and peering at a rock through a magnifying glass.

But the most striking views, I think, are the wide angle landscapes, the ones showing detail in the foreground, middle distance and far away. That’s when 3D works best – when there’s a dramatic “depth of field” to fool the eye into believing it’s actually looking at a real scene. And in this book you can enjoy truly startling views, and convince yourself you’re standing on Mars in your spacesuit, beneath that salmon-hued sky, looking out across the rolling martian plains and seeing rover tracks leading off to the horizon.

3d

Each image is accompanied by informative but not too technical text, so the book is educational as well as fun. And as the pictures are shown in the order in which they were taken, “Mars 3D” is an effective travelogue, too.

First published in 2008, four years after Spirit and Oppy boing-boinged to their historic landings, it has now been reissued and revised to bring it up to date. It now includes pages of Curiosity 3D images, but, sadly, only a couple of new Opportunity ones, which is a great shame, seeing as the MER has arguably done its best science and enjoyed some of its most dramatic views ever since the original book was published. I was hoping to see gorgeous 3D panoramas of the rim of Endeavour Crater, taken as Oppy approached, and I was sure it would include beautiful 3D views of the the varied landforms on Cape York, and the ridges and craters Oppy encountered on her way up Cape Tribulation, but sadly not.

So, yes, all in all a lovely title and – as they say on every single advert on TV – the perfect gift for Christmas, at least for that space mad geeky relative or partner of yours. If I had one criticism it would be that the book has not been revised that well. When it was originally published, in 2008, it “stopped” at the point where Opportunity was driving away from Victoria Crater, and that was probably a natural place to stop. But between then and now Oppy has reached another crater, the much larger crater “Endeavour” and has seen some literally jaw-dropping sights there which would have looked wonderful in 3D images in this revision. I opened the book fully expecting to see glorious 3D views of the rim of Endeavour opening up before me, and of the boulder-strewn slopes of Cape York, where the rover made “landfall” at Endeavour. I was sure it would contain eye-popping views looking across the crater, from Cape York, seeing the mountains on the far side, and i was absolutely sure it would feature at least a handful of images looking up at Solander Point and Cape Tribulation, the area of the crater’s rim chosen for Oppy’s ascent on the summit of its highest hills. I thought that some of the pictures from earlier in the mission would have been dumped in favour of later ones… but, alas, no, which is a huge shame and a wasted… um… Opportunity, in my opinion. The Curiosity images are beautiful, not saying they aren’t, but I would have bee happy to see Oppy’;s journey shown more completely.

But to be fair, that only takes away from the revised version of the book’s appeal for dyed in the wool space geeks like me. For the man or woman in the street this book is a fantastic guide to both the missions of the various rovers and the geology of Mars. ( And to be honest I made my own anaglyphs of those places when Oppy was exploring them anyway, so I haven’t missed out. I just think the book’s general readership would have benefitted from seeing more images from the later stages of Oppy’s epic trek across Mars. )

So, there you are. I can definitely recommend this book, and can honestly say that if you buy it for a loved one with an interest in space exploration they’ll be thrilled.

MARS 3D

Jim Bell

Sterling Books

ISBN 978-1-4549-1178-4

The calm after the storm

Phew… Philae, eh? What a few days! And here in the UK many of us relived the whole edge-of-the-seat drama all over again by watching a “Sky At Night” special all about the landing and the ROSETTA mission. It was a really good programme, focussing as much on the people involved in the mission, and what was at stake for them, as the science. Chris Lintott and Maggie did a great job communicating the tension, excitement and elation which drenched ESOC last Wednesday and in the days after. If you’re in the UK and missed it, you can catch up with it on the BBC iPlayer. If you’re living outside the UK, well, you’ll have to hope that you can catch it on one of your country’s TV channels (many show BBC programmes) or find some… other… computer trickery downloady way… to watch iPlayer. Not that I’m advocating you do that, of course…

Ahem.

Right. Where are we? Well, 5 days after the landing, there’s no word from Philae, but that’s not surprising. If it is recharging it will be a while, I think, before it’s able to phone home; so little sunlight reaches where Philae fell that it’s a longshot anyway. But we live in hope.

Meanwhile, no doubt there are photographic searches being made for Philae, by both the ROSETTA navcam and the OSIRIS camera. Obviously there’s more chance of OSIRIS finding it, but they could find a herd of mammoth on the comet’s surface and not bother to tell us, so we’ll see how that goes. OSIRIS certainly has the resolution to see Philae on the surface, as long as it didn’t bounce into a crevasse or a hole, so fingers crossed.

And, of course, now the Philae scientists will be getting stuck into analysing all their precious, hard-won data, and doing science with it. Good luck to all of them!

Now Philae has been dropped off, ROSETTA will get on with its main mission, which is monitoring the comet as it approaches, rounds and recedes from the Sun. So we can look forward – I hope – to more glorious navcam images, showing more and more activity.

Finally, as our memories of Philae’s epic landing fade, I’ve penned a tribute to the lander to celebrate and commemorate what happened. You can find it on my astropoetry blog, here…

Philae Dreams

It’s probably not what you’re expecting. Have a hankie ready…

More soon.

Sleep well, little one…

It’s coming up to 8am on Saturday morning, and I’m tapping away again after just 5 hours sleep. I could – should – have slept in, but I really wanted to get up and record the events of last night while they’re still (relatively) fresh in my mind. While I can do them justice.

Last night I was one of countless thousands of people all around the world who followed Philae’s last hours online, via Twitter. It was an ordeal, and an honour, to be able to watch – well, read – History being made, and was, I think, one of Twitter’s finest hours, especially for the scientific community. Twitter gets a lot of flack, sometimes rightly so. Too many people use it to cause misery for others, Tweeting insults and hurtful comments, and generally being low life pieces of scum, Trolling people when they are hurting and in need of help. But last night Twitter was a force for good, and an absolutely invaluable source of information, linking people all around the globe and allowing them to have front row seats as one of the most exciting, most inspiring chapters in the story of space exploration to date came to an end. We were able to sit in our lounges or bedrooms, in our offices and libraries, on our buses and walking along the street, and follow what was happening with Philae almost in real time by following Tweets being made by reporters covering Philae’s last hours, by ESA, and even by Philae itself. It was a wonderful, distressing, heartwarming, tear-jerking night, and I feel priviliged that I was part of it.

So, what happened?

Last night we all gathered online to sit and wait for Philae to phone home and start sending back the science data she had been gathering during the day, but there was no guarantee it would do that; having landed way off course, in the dark shadow of a cliff, or maybe even in a hole some thought, its solar panels had been starved of light, so it was going to be a race against time to see if it could send back all its precious data before going into hibernation. There was a very real possibility that some of the readings, measurements and information she had gathered – that in itself an incredible, against the odds achievement – would be lost if Philae fell asleep before having a chance to send it, so as we all sat here waiting for Philae to “phone home” around 9pm last night everyone was a bag of nerves. During the day the decision had been taken to tell Philae to use its drill to try and collect a sample of the comet and bring it onboard for analysis, an act which itself might have sent the unsecured lander bouncing back off into space. And it had also been decided that if that move worked, Philae would be commanded to try and move itself, rotating into a different position which would allow more sunlight to fall onto its energy-starved solar panels. Unbelievable, just unbelievable. But there was no other choice. Philae was, possibly, dying, so it was worth trying anything.

Sometimes these things simply come down to someone, somewhere, taking a stand against those urging caution and safety, taking a deep breath and saying, with bold resolve, “Ok, just do it…” Sometimes that ends badly, but sometimes the universe smiles on the brave, bold soul making the decision and rewards them, either with complete success or more usually just with a little more time than they would have had. Last night, someone, somewhere, made The Call to use Philae’s drill, and to get Philae to try and right itself, and the universe smiled on them: the drill worked, Philae righted itself, and the scientists back on Earth got almost everything they had asked for before Philae fell asleep. Exactly how it will work out now we can’t know, but as I write this Philae is in hibernation on comet 67P, job well done, enjoying a well-earned rest. It might wake up again – it might wake up later today! – or it might not, we’ll have to wait and see, but either way the lander’s mission was a staggering success, and everyone involved should feel very, very proud this morning.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, letting my words and my memories run away with me.

So, we were all sat here last night (UK time) at our computers, or with our laptops on our knees, or holding our tablets, or scrolling on our smartphones, following events through Twitter or Facebook, and the wait for Philae to phone home seemed to go on for an age. The time for the communication window with Philae to open came, and went – what a drama queen – but eventually the lander phoned home, and the data started flowing back. When that happened, oh, there was much rejoicing, and a real mood of excitement and optimism took hold as science reporters embedded at ESOC – and here I have to give special shout outs to two, the BBC’s own Jonathan Amos, and the Planetary Society’s Emily Lakdawalla, who were simply fantastic over the last few days, reporting EVERYTHING they possibly could quickly, concisely and profesionally – informed us what was happening. Philae itself posted an apology on Twitter…

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And so the data flowed back to Earth, showing that Philae had managed to carry out almost all of its science while it had been out of touch. Sadly, one instrument, a spectrometer, had failed because its lens cap had not come off – while everyone else is celebrating, that team must be feeling absolutely wretched this morning, poor souls – but everything else seemed to have worked well, but the effort to carry out all that science had left Philae weak and tired, and once it was clear that Philae was basically running on fumes it was commanded to try and move itself into a better position in order to save it – a daring decision, as I said, for if, as I and many others have suggested, the Philae landing was Europe’s “Apollo 11 Moment”, then this attempt to right the lander was surely Europe’s “Apollo 13 Moment”, an attempt to try and save the lander’s mission by putting Philae into such a position that if it did go into forced hibernation it would be able to recharge itself during its nap and come back to life again. But the effort of making Philae move would drain so much power from the lander’s batteries that it might *send* it into hibernation, so it was a real leap in the dark. A long-shot, but worth trying.

So we waited again…

And then…

woohoo

WOOHOO!!!! It had worked!! Philae had moved itself into a better orientation! There was a chance that its life on the surface of the comet could be extended! Maybe it had moved far enough out of that cliff’s shadow that it now had an unobscured view of the surface, and could see the Great Crater (if that’s where it eventually landed, no-one knows yet) stretching across its field of view, and the comet’s jets shooting into the sky in the distance…

But with the lander’s power levels going down there was now a race against time to get all the data off the lander and safely back to Earth. The clock was ticking, possibly for the last time.

So we waited again…

As the minutes passed more and more data came wandering home, like lost sheep returning to a pen, and the mission’s scientists’ smiles were broad and wonderful. Philae just kept going and going, sending back more and more data, and one of its instruments (a British one, yaaay!) even Tweeted…

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You can imagine that, can’t you! Philae bravely chirruping away, sending back data, while on Earth her scientists, the reporters following the mission and countless thousands of us had to recharge our computers, laptops and phones…!

And yes, we began to think that maybe, just maybe, Philae had done enough to keep going without a spell in hibernation…

But then…

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Oh no…. that graph showed Philae’s power levels dropping off a cliff… !! 😦 Time was finally running out… and lots of hands went to mouths in despair as the lander Tweeted…

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But STILL the plucky lander kept sending data back, including the so precious data gathered by the laboratory analysing the sample of material gathered from the surface. But the writing was on the wall, and Philae wrote home…

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Here on Earth many people were now feeling genuinely upset about Philae’s imminent passing. I know, I know, it’s only a machine, built from wires, and metal, and silicon chips, but we embrace these machines and become attached to them because they are MORE than machines, they represent not only years – decades – of work, but they represent our silly, arrogant, selfish, self-destructive species at its very best, so when one stops working, fading away before our eyes, well, it… hurts… and last night, as Philae’s eyes grew dim and its birdlike heartbeat began to flutter and slow, it was a very tough time, I’ll admit. ESA responded to Philae’s Tweet with one of their own…

nooooo

Oh no…..!!! How could they DO that to us??????/

Philae slowly got weaker and weaker, and soon it was clear that the end was nigh, and we read the following with heavy hearts and watery eyes…

last chat

And we waited, again, as 300 million miles away, sitting alone in the dark, in the shadow of a cliff, on the frozen, desolate surface of a comet, Philae’s head started to nod and its eyes started to close.There was one last, heart-wrenching exchange between Philae and Earth…

philae esa bye

..eventually, Philae stopped sending back data, and just sent back housekeeping telemetry. It was almost gone.

And then, finally, silence. Philae stopped transmitting, and the the link with Earth was broken. The lander had fallen asleep, and was now in hibernation, on standby like a TV or a DVD player. Chris Lintott, astronomer and presenter of the BBC’s SKY AT NIGHT, who had been at ESOC from before landing day, faithfully following and reporting on every twist and turn of the mission, Tweeted…

lintott bye

The end had come.

Those of us watching went through a real mixture of feelings then. Initially it was easy, and natural, to feel crushing disappointment and cheated too: the lander had come down in a hideous place, way off course, and on its side, so hadn’t been able to take the breathtaking panoramic photos we had been looking forward to for so long. But no, that was the wrong way of looking at things. Yes, Philae had fallen silent, and might not wake again, but despite its dire situation it had done almost everything asked of it, and had sent back all the data it had been asked to collect. It was a triumph, not a tragedy, and we should be celebrating, not mourning…! At ESOC the lander team were smiling, gathering for photos, and celebrating a brief life well lived…

good night philae

But still, as much as our heads told us that was the right thing to do, our hearts were heavy.

That was it.

Or.. was it?

It’s now the Morning After, and let’s be optimistic! There’s a chance that in the past few hours, while it’s been out of contact with Earth, Philae, in its new position (hopefully in more sunlight, we don’t know that yet) has been recharging, and might now have enough juice to let it phone home later today when another comms window with Earth opens up. Again, that’s a long-shot, but it’s possible, we’ll just have to cross our fingers and hope for the best.

I’ll end this post with my own little tribute to Philae. This is something  made yesterday afternoon, when it was becoming clear that Philae was probably going to go into hibernation that evening. I hope you like it.

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Whatever happens now, three things are clear. Firstly, Philae’s mission was a HUGE success, and anyone who claims otherwise is talking rubbish. No doubt there will be reporters spouting absolute *crap* today, bleating about how Philae failed, and worse. Oh, shut up. Shut UP. We landed a probe on a comet, you idiots.. on a ***** comet! … and it disected it scientifically. Ok, the landing didn’t go exactly as planned, but the probe DID land, and it sent back great images and almost ALL the data it had been sent to gather, which will keep cometary scientists working for years and will completely revolutionise our understanding of comets.

Secondly, the mission isn’t over! Cheer up, everyone! ROSETTA is still orbiting 67P and will be taking breathtaking photos for another YEAR! We’re just getting started! We’re going to see the comet burst into life over the coming months, as it falls towards the Sun. I have no doubt that ESA will keep releasing those beautiful navcam images and showing us 67P’s spectacular cliffs, craters and jets in all their glory. There’s that to look forward to.

And finally, it’s important to recognise what a game-changer this has been for ESA. Criticised – rightly – in the past for being basically RUBBISH at PR and Outreach, ESA has not just stepped but leaped into a new era with ROSETTA, transforming itself into an Outreach giant, sharing its science with The People. This is a new ESA, an ESA everyone in Europe can and should be proud of. I know I am. It’s a shame that one element of the ROSETTA mission, namely the OSIRIS camera team, hasn’t supported the mission as well as it should have done, hording their images and flatly refusing to engage with the public before the landing, but maybe, just maybe, they’ll take notice of the huge interest the public has shown in the landing and turn over a new leaf. They have missed out on SO much excitement because of their attitude. There has been a massive house party going on in their block, with free beer and food, and fantastic music, but they’ve locked themselves in their flat and moaned at the noise. They could have been having a great time, it’s such a shame. Still, the rapid release of the remarkable OSIRIS images of Philae descending towards 67P caught us all by surprise, so hopefully the team will be more open and more generous now, and maybe wander over to the party with a bottle of cheap wine, knock shyly on the door and ask if it’s not too late to come in.

So… here we are then… Philae’s mission might be over, or it might just have paused, it’s – like much of space exploration – a waiting game now. But whatever happens, this tremendous interest in the landing, and the subsequent outpouring of grief after Philae fell silent, has been proof, if any proof was needed, that the public will, if given the chance, engage with science and embrace it. It doesn’t matter if they don’t “get” the physics, the chemistry or whatever; it doesn’t matter that they don’t “get” why the boffins leaning towards their computer screens get excited when they see a squiggly line on a graph go up or down. They “get” that it’s an adventure, it’s exploration, it’s what makes us us. Oh, some don’t “get” it; they say that the money spent on space exploration would be better spent “down here, on Earth”, and jump,up onto their high horses and preach to everyone about how the money should have been used for medical research, or famine relief, things like that, not realising – or choosing to ignore – that scientists don’t fill rockets with money and send them off into space, they use that money to build things, to design and invent things which will find uses on Earth, too. And the wages of those scientists, engineers and techs goes back into “the real world”, to pay for their groceries, their car repair, their kids’ education, their pensions, and more. And the same people who moan about the money “lavished” on space exploration have no qualms about paying each month for such “essentials” as satellite TV, pet food and cosmetics. Some even suggest we should stop spending money “on space” altogether, as if that would help cure the world’s problems, as if so much money is spent “on space” that diverting it elsewhere would magically eradicate disease, poverty and injustice. Would they suggest stopping all air travel, and diverting that money? Or shutting down Hollywood, which can now easily spend $100m on a single film? Or putting to sleep every dog and cat in the world, and using the cost of their pet food for medical research? No, of course not. Space exploration is an easy target for ignorant people, that’s all.

Oh well. We’re never going to convince them. I’m not sure it’s worth even trying any more.

Right, time to wrap this up. Let’s all hope for the best, and keep our fingers crossed for Philae waking up again, but accept that it might not – and if it doesn’t, celebrate its incredible success!

The Day After…

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At the end of our last thrilling episode, we left the Philae lander on the surface of Comet 67P, having descended from its orbiting ROSETTA mothership, but we didn’t know where it was or what kind of state it was in. As we all went to bed last night there were suspicions that Philae had bounced after its initial landing and then come down some time later in a totally different location, but at the end of a thrilling/terrifying day data was being received and there were a lot of smiling faces at ESA. So, 24 hours after Philae landed on Comet 67P, what’s the situation?

ESA held a media briefing earlier today, and, well, basically there’s good news, and there’s bad news…

The good news is that Philae is down on the surface of 67P, working, and working very well, and sending back bucketloads of data, including pictures.We’ll look at some of those later.

The bad news? Philae bounced more, and further, than anyone was thinking last night. After coming down almost smack bang in the middle of Agilkia, the planned landing site – the carefully-selected, beautifully flat, safe, landing site – Philae then decided it wasn’t the right spot after all, too boring, and headed skywards again… and stayed up there for another TWO HOURS… It seems Philae’s flightpath was then basically over and across that huge crater at the ‘front’ of the smaller of the comet’s two lobes, until it came down on the other side.

And then it bounced again.

Eventually, another seven more minutes later, Philae came down and stayed down… but by now the lander was a long way from home, and definitely not in Kansas any more. This pic I made shows where it should have been, and where the ROSETTA team think (they’re still not sure) it  is now.

bounce 1s

bounce 2

Philae is now in one of the most rugged, roughest, least friendly areas of the whole comet. Not only that, but the images it has taken so far – and released today – suggest that it set down either at an angle, either in the shadow of or or up against a large boulder/outcrop. And to make matters even worse, none – not a single one – of the systems designed to fix the lander to the ground appears to have worked, so it is standing freely on the surface.

Well, I say “standing”. Some people, looking at the photos released today, think that Philae is actually lying on its side, with one of its three legs sticking up towards the sky. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the small amount of sunlight falling on the lander suggests that it is either wedged behind a big obscuration of some kind – a boulder or outcrop, something like that – or even came to rest in a hole or depression in the cliffs marking the rim of the crater. If you look at this crop from one of the fantastic navcam images you’ll see Philae is really, really not in a good place…

Site OMG

If the lander really is stuck somewhere in there, with little sunlight, that’s not good. Solar powered, it needs sunlight to stay alive, and to power its many instruments. If it had landed where planned, Philae would have been able to recharge repeatedly, and should have lasted months. If it can’t recharge its batteries, its life could be measured in days.

Which all sounds extremely gloomy, but that’s looking at it completely the wrong way! Against all the odds, Philae landed… eventually… is now down on 67P and doing fantastic science. And sending back great pictures. Here are the ones it sent back of its landing site…

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But another image was released by the OSIRIS team today, which shows something rather special…

Philae_descending_to_the_comet_wide-angle_view

Let’s zoom in on that a little…

ph ios 2

That, dear readers, is Philae, on its way to its date with destiny on the surface of 67P, as photographed by the OSISIS cameras onboard ROSETTA. What a fantastic achievement.

I’ll end with this cute and oddly moving image posted by ESA today…

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Awwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww..!!!!!

And that’s where we are now… more tomorrow.

A historic day…

Wow… I don’t know how I’m going to write up what happened today, I really don’t. It was just… incredible, really, a day of highs and lows, soaring joy and fleeting despair, celebration and pessimism… Ok, let’s give it a go…

It’s now 8pm here in the UK, and I’ve been on this laptop since 6am this morning with only a couple of brief pauses for food, water (well, tea, Brit, you know…) and air. I’ve been flipping between Twitter and Facebook so many times through the day I’ll probably develop RSI in my typing fingers, and my keyboard is screaming at me “Enough! Leave me in peace!!!” But not yet, not yet…

In the last post on this blog I wrote about today’s events leading up to the deployment of Philae, all shown live on a fantastic ESA webcast. What happened next? Well, there was then a two hour gap, filled with interviews with talking heads and re-runs of videos and clips. I decided it was time to open and eat a handful of my “Good luck” peanuts – it’s a tradition now for us spacey types to eat peanuts on a landing day…

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…but then suddenly people started Tweeting and FB posting about blurred images glimpsed on screens over the webcast – could these be the much-anticipated “farewell” shots taken of ROSETTA by little Philae after it had started to drop away? Maybe… but they were very blurry, out of focus, smeared…

farewell 1b crop

What the..?? Did that mean the camera wasn’t working? Was something wrong??

No, neither of those… the pictures “doing the rounds” were just poor quality screen grabs of poor quality images, and when the real image was released, well, the place erupted and the internet threatened to melt. This is what we saw…

farewell 1b

WOW!!! LOOK AT THAT!!! That’s the ROSETTA orbiter, top right, one of its huge solar array wings being lit by a burst of sunlight… That picture was taken by little Philae as it fell away, plunging down towards 67P, and it’s been hailed as an “iconic” image already.

But that was just the warm-up act. Soon after that Farewell image was shown, to everyone’s utter amazement it was announced that the OSIRIS cameras had managed to image Philae as it fell away – and the pictures were ready to be shown by OSIRIS PI Holger Sierks!! WHAT?? REALLY??? Were we dreaming??? Did we just imagine that??? OSIRIS images, barely a couple of hours old, being released into the wild???? Could it be true???? What was the catch?

It was true, and there was no catch. A delighted Holger Sierks beamed from ear to ear as he shared his team’s images with the watching world. The first was a wide angle view, showing Philae as really just a bright “star” near the middle…

Farewell_Philae_-_wide-angle_view

(these images all Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA )

But the second one was much more promising… little Philae looked bigger, over on the left hand side of the image…

Farewell_Philae_-_narrow-angle_view

Oh the cheers and applause at ESOC when that one was shown! But then Holger showed a zoomed in view of that second image and the place just went nuts…

farewell 1

Look… a spaceship… dropping towards a comet… its legs outstretched…

A fantastic image, another icon right there… but I thought it could be tidied up a little, and after a little work this is what I pulled out of that, re-orienting it to make it look like it was actually going in for landing, too…

farewell 4b

Un-be-LEE-vable!! And a good sign, surely, for the rest of the day…?

I have been extremely critical of the OSIRIS team on this blog, with, I feel, very good reason. Their image hording in the run-up to today has been shameful. But today, credit where credit is due, they did a fantastic job taking and then releasing their images so quickly. Well done to them.

Another pause in proceedings then, and the ESA webcast slipped back into “lurk” mode, showing live shots of the ESOC control room without commentary, but accompanied by a bizarre and migraine-inducing jazz soundtrack. I know jazz has its fans, but I’m not one of them. It’s just not music to me. So this interlude was torture for me, and on Twitter and Facebook I *pleaded* with the ESA team to find another CD in someone’s car, but to no avail. So I made this image, which many Brits “got” but left others baffled… Which camp do you fall into, I wonder? ;-

jcesa

With an hour or so left to go until the receipt of signals from Philae confirming she had touched down safely, suddenly things started moving quickly, and the live broadcast resumed. But, as is often the case now, it was Twitter which provided the next image – an image taken by Philae, looking down at the comet as it dropped towards it!

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Some very familiar features on that, but that wasn’t the point, the point was that the lander was working – and was aimed – perfectly at that point, which was a huge confidence boost!

And then all we could do was sit back and wait… as the predicted/time delayed time of Philae’s “I’ve landed!” communications window opened, everyone held their breath, and waited. And waited. We watched the live feed from mission control, and as the minutes ticked by without any signal coming in we noticed, with alarm, how worried and tense they all looked in there…

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… and when we saw them reaching for their mobiles we did wonder if the ROSETTA team was going on Twitter themselves in an attempt to find out what was going on…

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And still the minutes ticked by. I sat here, laptop on my knee, Peggy jumping on and off me, bored and feeling ignored, oblivious to the way my insides were absolutely tying themeselves up in knots –

Then, a cheer, and another, and applause, and suddenly people in mission control were hugging and cheering and slapping each other on the back…

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Success? It looked like it! Why else would they be cheering like that? Then a Tweet came in, and was retweeted again and again and again…

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Philae had phoned home! The lander was down! It had done it!! So the question now was: when would we see the images of the surface?

Because of the time delay it was always going to be another half hour before we saw anything from the lander after that first confirmation signal came in, so all we could do was wait… again

Eventually images started to trickle out – not because they were released, but because they were glimpsed on screens being shown on various live feeds and then grabbed and shared by space enthusiasts watching. So, not long after landing, we were seeing views like these…

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For a while there was HUGE excitement online when an image began circulating which looked very much like it was actually a “selfie” taken by Philae on the surface of the comet!!

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…but at the time of writing (almost half nine, good god!!!) the consensus seems to be that that is NOT a surface image, but an image taken on Earth when the lander was being tested. Shame…

And then, out of nowhere, rumours began to circulate that all was not well with Philae. People were saying that something had gone wrong with the landing gear, namely the harpoons hadn’t fired to secure Philae to the surface. In good news, the “ice screws” were apparently turning, hslping to hold Philae down, but the loss of the harpoons was potentially a big blow… which led me to create and post this…

am

Sorry, I just couldn’t resist it…!

Time passed, rumours blossomed then died down again, until eventually ESA announced that they would be holding a media briefing, with the latest news about the mission. The time scheduled for the conference to begin came, and went… nothing… It was rescheduled, and that time came and went too. I know I started to feel all kinds of bad feelings about the mission, and wondered of they were preparing to break Bad News to us. When the media briefing began, it was clear pretty soon that that wasn’t going to happen. But the situation with Philae was… well… complicated…

It turns out that Philae landed pretty much smack bang in the middle of her planned landing zone, but then instead of her leg harpoons firing and securing her to the surface something went wrong… and she went back up again, bouncing gently off the comet back up into the air, where she turned around. At this point her comms link with Rosetta fluctuated, coming and going, which had turned the team quite pale, but then Philae had come back down again, and this time had stayed down. So she had, effectively, landed TWICE on 67P. How incredible is that? Mankind’s first landing on a comet was actually a double landing!

And the situation after that? Well, Philae had taken images, as planned, and gathered a lot of data very quickly, but the comms window with Rosetta had shut before Philae had had a chance to send everything back, so we weren’t going to see the pictures of the surface tonight, which was a huge shame, obviously, but that’s just the way it is, and after all the wonderful events of the day it would be a shame to dwell on that so we’ll just have to be patient and wait until tomorrow for those. And there’s going to be a media briefing at 1pm GMT tomorrow, when everything will become a lot clearer. (Typical… I’ll still be at work… I’ll have to catch up when I get back…)

One thing they will want to do is *find* Philae. It seems that when it made its first landing it was right on course, and came down exactly where planned, i.e. around here (circled in red)…

Philae_s_primary_landing_site_from_30_km_b

…but when it bounced where did it end up? How far away did it travel? Some commentators suggest it came back down as far as 500m away from its original landing site, but in which direction? The lander could be anywhere. No doubt the OSIRIS team will be carrying out blanket imaging of the comet and scouring their images for any sign of the lander. They’re probably taking those pictures already.

…and that was the big day.

It’s now almost 11.30pm, and I’ve been up since 6am, and that was after just 3 hours sleep. I feel so tired I could lie down on that floor over there and sleep for a week, I swear, but I wouldn’t have missed any of it for the world. It has been an absolute privilege to follow history being made from my own home – from my own sofa in my own home, at that – and to share the events of the day with friends and strangers from around the globe. Today we were witnesses to history. Today was mankind’s first ever landing on a comet, and that will never happen again. There are so few firsts left in space exploration. We have already had the first man in space, the first man on the Moon, the first landings on Mars, Venus and Titan, and asteroids. The first landing on a comet was one of the few firsts left – along with first manned landing on Mars, the first landing on Europa and the first fly-by of Pluto – and today we watched that happen almost in real-time.

For countless centuries we viewed comets with fear, dreading their appearance in our skies. Eventually our dread turned to fascination, and we eagerly trained our telescopes on them to learn all we could about them. Eventually we spied on them with spacecraft, taking the first close-up images of their strange, irregular shapes and surface features, but still craved to know more, so we designed and built a spacecraft which would land on one and let us stare straight into its eyes and heart, and see its icy soul. That’s why, tonight, after a journey of ten years and billions of miles, and a tour of the inner solar system, a plucky little spacecraft is sitting on the surface of Comet 67P, and why we are, in between yawns, rejoicing.

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And with that it’s time for me to call it a day. I hope some of you have enjoyed reading about how one space enthusiast watched history being made today, and I hope that you were able to follow today’s events from wherever you were, too.

More tomorrow. Bed beckons. Goodnight.

And goodnight, little Philae, wherever you are.