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Looking for Lovejoy…

Had no luck looking for Lovejoy (was that a Hue and Cry song? Hmmm, maybe not…) last night, thanks to a combination of rubbish weather and light pollution. Look at this panorama I took from inside Kendal Castle – it’s a wonder we ever see *anything*…

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My own fault, really, going up to the castle at 11pm when there was just a bare hint of a gap in the clouds, but you know me, ever the optimist, I couldn’t help myself. And when I finally got up there, having splodged and trudged up the muddy hillside, there were just enough star-filled gaps drifting over the castle to keep me there for an hour or so… but none of those gaps drifted over the comet, so I never saw it, and headed back down around midnight. And finally my luck ran out and I went flying when the mud beneath my boots gave way. The things we do for astronomy, eh?

Comet Lovejoy is still being enjoyed by experienced amateurs with big telescopes and cameras, and some truly stunning photos are being taken by astro-photographers now, but to be honest it’s getting harder to see now for beginners because the big, bright Moon is getting bigger and brighter each night, drowning out the comet’s faint light. Here in Cumbria the weather has turned evil again, and all my weather forecasting apps agree that the chances of Comet Lovejoy being glimpsed in the Cumbrian sky are about the same as the chances of me watching the head-shakingly disappointing 2014 Doctor Who Christmas Special again. But if you live in a part of the country or the (northern) world where the clouds are predicted to part, here’s a chart to help you find the comet…

FC Dec 31 - jan 4

Book review: “Stories In The Stars” by Susanna Hislop

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I’m sure I’m not the only person who does this, but every year I buy myself a Christmas present. I think it’s only fair. After all, I tell myself as the Big Day approaches, I spend the year being careful and sensible, working very hard at a difficult and demanding and badly-paid job, and I often go without… stuff… because I have to. But at Christmas I let myself have a treat. Sometimes it’s something small, or very small, other times I go large. This year I was wandering around my local Waterstones and I saw a book up there on a shelf and I knew I’d found my present. It was as if a light was shining on it. I started reading the preface and was hooked from the first few sentences. Oh, yes, I thought, standing there in the shop, with the rain lashing down outside, this is a good writer… this is a great writer… I saw straight away the book was something very special, but without any money or my wallet on me I had to put it back and hope no-one else would buy it before I came back for it. Thankfully, no-one did, and a couple of days later I was excitedly carrying it home. That book was the one you see in the picture above, being closely guarded by Peggy – Susanna Hislop’s “Stories In The Stars”.

So, what’s it like?

Ok, practical stuff first. It’s a very old fashioned looking book – and I mean that as a compliment. It’s not flashy, not vulgar like some modern astronomy books; it’s a hefty, well made volume. It just feels nice in your hand as you hold it. Nice paper too – yes, publishers, that still matters to some of us out here. Bookmark ribbon too, nice touch. Classy.

The book says on the front it is “An Atlas of Constellations” and it is.. kind of…. You know the format – the classical stories behind each of the sky’s 88 constellations are told, and each tale is accompanied by a full page illustration showing a stylised star chart of that constellation. And this book follows that tried and tested format. I know what you’re thinking: “So what? There are countless star atlases and astronomy books out there which do that!” and you’d be right. But this one is different. This one isn’t boring. Unlike most of those other atlases on the book shelves, this one isn’t as dull and dry as a spilled can of ten year old magnolia paint.

Despite that claim on the front, “Stories In The Stars” isn’t actually an atlas. I have star atlases, and this not an atlas. I wouldn’t want to take it out stargazing with me for fear of dropping it in the mud and ruining it. ( And besides, its star charts aren’t really all that practical anyway, but more of those later…). This isn’t a book to use in a field, it’s a book to read whilst curled up in a comfy chair, beneath your favourite lamp or next to a crackling fire, sipping a glass of wine.

Like all astronomy atlases, this is a book of stories, fabulous, fantastic stories, the stories of the constellations, but in this volume they are told in a new and different way to any of the other atlases I own or have seen. In her book, writer Susanna Hislop has – and I know this is a cliche, but for once it’s actually fitting – brought the stories behind the constellations to life. Some of their stories are told traditionally, others in original, quirky and innovative ways. The struggles and adventures of all the sky’s characters and creatures from myth and history are brought vividly to life here by a skilled and passionate writer who loves words and uses language like a musician plays a piano or violin; the words just roll into each other, like silk sliding across silk. While many tales from classical Greek history, and other cultures, are told in a traditional way, some constellations’ stories are brought bang up to date, made made more contemporary, in new and original ways. Some accounts are written in the first person. Others take the forms of crosswords, conversations or even, ingeniously, telegrams. Others still are set in modern times and locations, short stories in their own right. A couple are so witty and clever and dry they are the kind of thing Caitlin Moran would write if she suddenly became fascinated in astronomy, and could stop herself swearing.

See? I told you, this is an atlas unlike any I’ve – or you will ever have – seen before.

I spent an afternoon reading this book, dipping in and out as time and pre-Christmas duties and chores allowed, and found myself carried away by it. Hislop is such a gifted and skilled storyteller, the book is a joy to read, it really is. And, it WORKS. The stories inside burn into your memory as if branded by a hot iron. When I managed to get out under the real sky a couple of nights after I found myself looking up at the constellations with new, fresh eyes. I saw Orion, Ursa Major and Cassiopeia as if for the first time. I already knew their stories, of course – Orion was a Hunter, Ursa Major a big bear, Cassiopeia a vain queen – but now they seemed to glow in the sky when I looked at them, as if I was highlighting them in Stellarium or with one of my phone apps, their stories suddenly more vivid and real. And for that I wish I could say a personal thank you to the author, looking her in the eye. It’s easy to become jaded with the constellations. Their stories become lost as you grow older. You forget them when you’re worrying about collimating your telescope, or making sure your camera is focussed, or checking the latest weather forecast on your phone as the time of an eclipse or occultation draws near. Reading this book brought those wonderful stories back to life for me. It turned the sky into the inside of a great cavern, its walls painted with dragons and eagles, heroes and heroines, and more.

And this atlas achieved something else too – it made me want to read the stories behind the constellations in the southern sky. I’ve never really bothered before, to be honest. After all, I can’t see Phoenix, or Pavo, or Crux, so why should I spend valuable time reading about them? I am doing now; Hislop’s writing style made me want to read about those exotic creatures which lurk beneath my feet, hidden from my view by my Homeworld, not just because I knew I’d find them interesting in her hands, but because I simply wanted to read as much of Hislop’s writing as possible, I was enjoying it so much.

Of course, in an atlas like this the text is only half the book. Each constellation is shown, too, with a star chart accompanying and illustrating each description.

And…. I have mixed feelings about the illustrations, I have to be honest. One part of me really likes them. They’re very crisp and clear, very minimalist. They show the shape of the whatever-it’s-meant-to-be clearly, represent the magnitudes of the stars accurately and faithfully. They’re elegant in a Wedgewood pottery kind of way…

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But another part of me can’t help thinking maybe they’re too basic, too minimalist. After all, Hislop’s text is so rich, so colourful, her descriptions and tale-telling so vivid, that the charts’ simplicity and lack of detail jarred with me as I read the book. It’s like when you are watching a film in 3D, and everything is leaping out at you, flying past your ear, so real you think you could reach into the screen and wrap your fingers around something, but then, unable to help yourself, you lower your glasses to see what the screen looks like without them on, and everything is just flat and normal. That’s how I felt reading the book. I read the fantastic descriptions, in mental 3D, then lowered my glasses by looking across the page and was… deflated. A bit.

That sounds like I hate them. I don’t. They are beautiful pictures in their own right, and they do exactly what they are supposed to do – show the reader the constellation on question, and, hopefully, help them identify it in the sky at some later date. But I can’t help wishing that the charts in the book were more colourful, more vivid, as full of life and wonder as the text –

…but then again, that might make the book too fussy! The charts and text would be competing with each other for the reader’s attention, and the charts might be an unwelcome distraction…! Oh  don’t know, I can’t decide. I did like the artist’s depiction of Orion though, that was cool…

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So, there you have it. Or rather, I have it, here beside me now, on the sofa, where it’s been the past few days, ready for me to pick it up again and read the tale of another constellation instead of doing one of the million things I really should be doing. If I turn the TV down, and if Peggy stops purring like a motor boat, I can, I think, hear the book calling to me, like a siren from a rock… “Open me… open me…” No. Later. I have to finish this review.

If you want a practical star altas, this is not the book for you. It won’t  be any help at all for anyone wanting to track down any of the galaxies, nebulae and star clusters painted on the dome of the sky. But there are many books available which will hep you do that, as well as maps, charts and now phone apps too, so that’s not a problem, is it? But if you want to Know the sky, if you want to be taken on a personal tour of its wonderful stories and fables, myths and mysteries, by a master storyteller who will sit you down, fill your head and heart with such beautiful images and poetry that she will change the way you look at the sky, possibly just for a couple of nights but possibly forever, then this is the book for you. Get someone to buy it for you, for your birthday, or use that book token you were given by a relative at Christmas.

Or just buy it for yourself, like I did. Trust me, you deserve it.

(And Susanna, if you get to read this, please, PLEASE… a sequel… the stories behind the names of the planets, moons and asteroids in the solar system are crying out to be told by you, too…)

———————————————————————————————————————————-

You can read excerpts from the book on the Waterstones blog, here:

http://www.waterstones.com/blog/2014/11/look-to-the-stars/

DETAILS:

“Stories In The Stars”

Susanna Hislop

Hutchinson Books

ISBN 978-0-09-195445-1

Another look at Lovejoy

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Enjoyed a fantastic night’s observing and imaging last night… 🙂

The BBC Weather App had assured me all day that it would be clear up at Shap until at least 11.30pm, and it is usually very reliable, so up we went, Stella and I, with as many layers on as possible to protect us against the brutal cold, and while Stella  kipped in the car I left the warmth of the car behind and went out under a magically starry sky (shame there was a 1st Qtr Moon blasting all the faint stars and fuzzy things, including Comet Lovejoy, out of it!) to  FINALLY, after all the delays due to bad weather, set up The New Telescope properly for the first time, and gave it a good test flight.

And boy, did it perform! The Celestron “Sky Align” system turned out to be wonderfully simple and accurate, and after very quickly aligning on two stars and Jupiter the ‘scope was good to go, and faultlessly panned around to and gave me great views of M42 (gorgeous, what detail!), the Pleiades, M1 (visible even in moonlight, fantastic!) and Jupiter (bit wobbly in the ever-present Shap wind but very crisp view). I’m very impressed with the ‘scope on the strength of last night’s performance, and I’m already looking forward to getting it out under a dark, Moon-free sky later in the month.

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Of course, I was really there to look for and photograph Comet Lovejoy, and even with the 1st Quarter Moon riding high in the sky it was obvious in my 10×50 binoculars, and was captured easily by my Canon 1100D DSLR with a 50mm lens and settings of 4s at f2.2 and 1600ISO.

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I found it in the scope too, by entering “M79” and then just nudging it a bit, and there it was, glowing softly and serenely in the eyepiece, just beautiful, but would have been sooo much nicer without that Moon… never mind, it was a treat just to see it at all after the recent weather!

By eleven pm the temperature was dropping dramatically and the Moon was dropping towards the horizon too, darkening the sky considerably, so the comet stood out much more clearly in the binocs and telescope eyepiece. Definitely wasn’t a naked eye object, but with that Moon, no surprise there…

But by midnight the sky started to cloud over, just as the BBC Weather App had predicted, and as Lovejoy vanished behind a bank of curdled grey, with the telescope and car both covered with glistening frost, and with my hands and feet going quite numb despite gloves and several pairs of socks, I called it a night.

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I took a lot of images of Lovejoy, and saw it through the telescope, so safe to say Mission Accomplished! Of course the Moon took away a lot of the comet’s subtle glow, but I’m not too bothered about that; it was just lovely to be out under a brittle, star-spattered sky, with a comet glowing softly above the snow-dusted fells.

And I can’t wait to get the new telescope out under a proper dark sky…!

Capturing Comet Lovejoy…

Oh, Comet Lovejoy, you’re going to drive me round the bend, I can tell…!!!

What a couple of frustrating evenings I’ve just had, trying to see and photograph Comet Lovejoy! It’s now in the northern sky… barely… and as the last two nights were clear/partly clear here in Cumbria I headed out to try and bag my first photos of it. On Boxing Day night I went up to Kendal Castle – and by “went up” I mean “slogged my way up muddy, treacherous tracks and slopes, slipping and sliding like Bambi on a frozen pond, until I reached the Castle”!!! – and went up onto the viewing platform in the castle to give myself the best chance of seeing the comet oh so low in the south. The light pollution was dreadful, turning the southern sky a hideous shade of orange/yellow, and low mist and fog made everything soft focus too, but after a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth, waiting for the comet to clear a sluggish cloud bank, I got it…! I’ve circled it to make it easier to spot… (click to enlarge)

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I know, I know, not very impressive… ok, not impressive AT ALL, but my first Lovejoy pic! Thankfully the sky started to clear so I hung around and got some better views…

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LJ2 F

Then last night, on the way back from visiting my mum up in Cockermouth, Stella and I stopped of close to and then in Bowness to try and capture Lovejoy again. Our first attempts were thwarted by a line of cloud which, while the rest of the sky was beautifully, agonisingly clear, sat right on top of the comet and refused to move away from it. I caught a couple of brief glimpses of it… (centre)

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…but that ******** cloud just refused to move, so we headed down to the lake at Bowness itself, and Stella, the little navigating genius that she is, found us a brilliant (if treaherous again!) spot right down on the water’s edge, and from there I was able to see the comet! But AGAIN, with the rest of the sky blissfully clear and spattered with stars, a line of cloud was sitting on top of Lovejoy and only breaking up for a few moments at a time. Still, it was long enough to allow us to get some pics…

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But as I said, VERY frustrating… if that (bleep) cloud had just been a LITTLE higher, or lower, we would have had a clear, unobstructed view of the comet and I would have got much better pictures. As it was – as has happened so many times in the ;past I’ve lost count – the sighting was ruined by a single mass of cloud that just sat right on top of the comet and refused, flatly, to move. Grrrrrrr.

Just have to try again tonight!

How to see and enjoy Comet Lovejoy

For the past few weeks amateur astronomers and stargazers in the southern hemisphere have been enjoying a real treat – a comet, bright enough to be seen through small telescopes and even binoculars, has been moving across the southern sky, delighting everyone with its beautiful green hue and delicate, lacy tail. Up here in the northern hemisphere Comet Lovejoy has been too far below our horizon to allow us to see it, so we’ve just had to drool over the beautiful images of it being posted online every day. But finally, finally, Comet Lovejoy is moving up into the northern sky, and it’s our turn! Yaaaay!

Inevitably, the media are now starting to catch up with this story, and there are some hugely misleading and hyped-up “Christmas Comet to race across the sky!” type headlines appearing online, and they’ll be in print soon too, I’m sure. And as I’ll explain later, some of the crazies are latching on to the comet too, predicting (as they have done for every high profile comet of the last decade) it will bring death, doom and disaster to us all, the pathetic losers. So, to counter all the inaccurate information, and the BS of the Apocalypseporn-worshipping tin foil hat-wearing brigade, I thought I’d together a very simple, very easy-to-understand, fear mongering free guide to seeing, and enjoying, Comet Lovejoy.

First, some basics.

WHAT ARE COMETS? Well, comets are members of the solar system, just like the planets and asteroids, but their orbits are different. Planets (and many asteroids) have orbits around the Sun which are almost circular, so they spend most of the time at the same distance from the Sun.

comet-orbits

As you can see from the image above, comet orbits, in comparison, are more like long, long loops, which means that most of the time a comet is well away from the Sun, but occasionally, and very briefly, they come in towards the Sun then whip around it and head back off into deep space again. When they are close to the Sun naturally they get hotter than usual, so their ices melt (sublime, actually, but don’t worry about it) and vast amounts of gas and dust locked up in their icy bodies is released, forming a glowing head and, sometimes (but not always) a long, glowing tail, too.

Until relatively recently we thought comets were basically just “dirty snowballs”, but after visits to several comets by unmanned spacecraft we now know they are MUCH more complicated than that! Here’s one of the latest images from the European ROSETTA spacecraft of a comet called “67P” (for short!) and as you can see it looks nothing like a mere “dirty snowball”..!

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WHAT DO COMETS LOOK LIKE IN THE SKY? Many people think (and tell others!) that comets whoosh across the sky, like a brighter, bigger version of a shooting star. This is – sadly, for astronomers – utter, utter rubbish. (I blame The Waterboys, personally; in their famous song “The Whole Of The Moon” they use the immortal line “She came like a comet, blazing her trail” which does rather suggest comets dash across the sky, trailing smoke and fire…) And if you look at old pictures of comets – engravings, woodcuts, paintings, etc – the comets shown on those do look a lot like they’re whooshing across the heavens, don’t they?

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…but the truth is rather different. Comets DO move across the sky, but sloooooooooowly… They don’t whoosh or dash across it. They only move by a small amount each night, so when you look at one – with your naked eye or through binoculars or a small telescope – it appears to be perfectly still, just a fuzzy patch of light, a bit like an out of focus star.  You might notice it had moved a small amount if you looked at it again a few hours later, or the next night, but most comets move so slowly across the sky they take weeks or even months to cross the heavens. So if you’re planning on going out to look for Comet Lovejoy you’re going to be looking for something IN the sky, like a star, a planet or the Moon, not something moving across it like a plane, a satellite or shooting star.

And if you’re expecting to see something huuuge like this painted on the sky…

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…then you’re in for a disappointment. Most comets are very small visually, and need a pair of binoculars or a telescope to see them. Occasionally a more impressive one appears which is big enough to be seen easily with the naked eye, and in recent years there have been a handful, but they are few and far between to be honest. Comet Lovejoy is visible to the naked eye now, to our southern friends, but it just looks like an out of focus star. If we northern hemisphere dwellers are VERY lucky, by the time it has moved a bit further away from the horizon Comet Lovejoy should still be visible to our naked eyes, and on a clear, dark, Moon-free mid- to late-January night we might even see it as a short stubby misty patch in the sky if it has grown a noticeable tail by then, making it look like a small section of an airplane’s vapour trail. But it will not be slap-across-the-face-obvious, even from the darkest depths of the countryside, and if you live in a city or town you’ll probably need binoculars to see it through all the light pollution and murk.

So, to summarise, what you are looking for is a small, quite faint, misty smudge in the sky, moving a little way across the sky each night. What you are not going to see is a bright light swooshing across the heavens trailing smoke and fire.

WHERE DO YOU LOOK FOR COMET LOVEJOY? Ok, time for a very basic lesson in stargazing.

First of all, where you plan on observing from is VERY important.

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If you live on an estate, or just in a built-up area, well, the odds are against you. You’ll be surrounded by so many lights – streetlights, security lights, illuminated advertising hoardings, etc – that you simply won’t have a sky dark enough to see the comet in. And any tall buildings around you might block out the comet too. If you can get somewhere more open, somewhere darker, like a park or a school playing field, your chances will improve because your sky will be darker due to the lack of lights, and you’ll see more OF it too, with fewer buildings around you. But to have the best chance of seeing the comet (and anything in the night sky, really) you need to get out of town and away from the lights completely. Find a lay-by or a side road or a quiet farm gateway somewhere, and you’ll be stunned by how BIG the sky is, and many more stars you can see in it – and you will have the best view of the comet from there too.

But where will the comet be in the sky?

On the next clear evening, head outside around 6.30pm, look to the east, and you’ll see these stars just above the horizon…

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Can you see that line of three stars in the middle there, just above the horizon? That’s a very famous group of stars, one of the most famous in the whole sky in fact. You’ll have seen it before, without knowing what it actually was, I’m sure, just as you’ll have heard of it…

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Yep, that’s it – “Orion’s Belt”. The Belt is a line of three blue-white stars, all of roughly equal brightness, which cuts across the centre of the constellation of Orion. But if you’re looking at half past six you won’t be able to see all of the constellation, you’ll just see the top. By eleven o’clock the whole of the constellation will have risen into the sky, looking like this…

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Now you can see that Orion looks like an hourglass. Orion is actually the main winter constellation, and like all constellations its brightest stars have their own names. You can also use the stars of the Belt to help find Sirius, the brightest star in the sky…

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Orion is meant to be a hunter, dominating the winter sky. If you could click your fingers and see the “artwork” behind the stars you’d see something like this…

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Yes, that really is a unicorn beside Orion, and a hare beneath him!

But why am I banging on about Orion so much? Because Comet Lovejoy is going to spend the next couple of weeks moving up from beneath Orion and then passing it, that’s why, so you’ll need to get to know this part of the sky at least reasonably well if you’re going to find the comet, especially if you’re an absolute beginner.

Right, having found Orion, next you need to find the constellation of LEPUS, The Hare. It’s not hard to find because it lies directly beneath Orion, and its major stars form a box of stars which looks kind of like a squashed rectangle…

5b Orion to Lepus

From now until the New Year, Comet Lovejoy is going to be moving first towards and then past that little box of stars…

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After that, it will start to fairly scoot across the sky, higher and further to Orion’s right every night. This chart I made shows the comet’s path from Christmas Eve to the middle of January, and it uses an actual photo of the stars instead of drawn dots so hopefully it will be more realistic and useful…

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Ok, so that’s where to look for the comet, but what are you actually looking for..?

If you’re interested in this comet, and keen to find it, you’ll already have seen lots of gorgeous photos of it online, images like this one, taken by the brilliant astro-photographer Jeanette Lamb…

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…and this one, by legendary astro-photograher Damian Peach…

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Wow! Imagine seeing THAT through your binoculars or telescope!!

Well, that’s all you can do, imagine it, because Comet Lovejoy looks NOTHING like that visually! Why? Because as beautiful as photos like that are, they are also very misleading. Those images were taken through telescopes, so the comet and details in its tail are greatly magnified. They are also long exposure photos, taken over many many minutes by very sensitive cameras, so the images show incredibly faint detail the eye can never hope to see. Astro-photographers even “stack” many separate images together to make a single high resolution image, which looks spectacular but doesn’t reflect what the eye would actually see. If you know that from the start, the images aren’t misleading at all – astronomers and sky-watchers marvel at the work of people like Jeanette and Damian – but if you’re new to astronomy, and think they are single pictures taken by cameras simply pointing at the sky, well, yes, they can be misleading.

No, what you will see will look nothing like those images. What you will see with your naked eye will be basically a fuzzy, greenish patch in the sky, like a big out of focus star.

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Image: Stanislav-Kaniansky (from Space Weather.com)

It might develop a small tail, making it look more like a small greenish tadpole in the sky, but we’ll have to wait and see about that.

As for the view through a telescope, or binoculars, it will look something like this…

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Image: Michael-Boschat from Spaceweather.com

Imagine a few grains of green chalk on a piece of black paper… now imagine smudging those grains with your finger tip to make a small, round smudge… well, that’s what Lovejoy will look like magnified through binocs or a small telescope.

Now, if we’re really lucky and Lovejoy develops a nice tail, it ***MIGHT*** look something like this to the naked eye by mid- to late January…

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…and then the view through binocs or a small telescope could be lovely, with the tail clearly visible, but there’s absolutely no guarantee of that, so we’ll just have to wait and see what happens. But that’s all part of the fun of comet hunting!

I say “fun”, when what I really mean is “pain, anguish and torment”, because comets are notoriously unreliable and unpredictable, so much so that they’re often compared to cats; in the past, ones that promised to be bright ended up fizzling out (mention no names… ISON…), while others which promised little ended up being more impressive than predicted. For Comet Lovejoy really all you can do is try to see it whenever you can, and just take what you’re given. And of course you’re totally at the mercy of the weather too. And if there’s a bright Moon in the sky that will wash out the comet, or reduce it to a whisper of light in the sky. But don’t let those things put you off. Just get out there, look for it, with whatever you have, and enjoy whatever you see.

But if seeing Comet Lovejoy isn’t enough, and you want to photograph it, what do you do?

Well, there is a very full and comprehensive guide to comet photography on one of my other blogs, which you can find here, but the basics are:

* You will need a camera which can take time exposures of several seconds, and can be set to a high ISO rating (that’s what used to be called “Film Speed”!)

* Mount the camera on a sturdy tripod.

* Point it at the area of sky Comet Lovejoy is in.

* With the camera’s ISO set at a high value (1600 ISO or higher is best) and its lens open at its widest aperture (that’s the “F” number, and you want it set to the smallest value, i.e. f2 or f3 is better for night sky photography than f5 or f7) take exposures of between a couple of seconds and ten seconds. Depending on the focal length of your lens (that’s the number in mm on the lens) you will either record the comet and the stars around it as points of light or short lines. If your photograph shows the stars as lines, try a shorter exposure, and keep shortening it until you get points instead of trails.

* Load your photos on to your computer and use whatever photo processing software you have to mess about with them process them – changing the levels, the contrast and brightness etc – until you have something you’re pleased with, and which shows the comet at its best. Don’t expect wonders the first time you try, but with a little patience and perseverence you should get an image of the comet worth keeping.

And finally… a warning…

As Comet Lovejoy climbs higher into the northern sky – and, hopefully, brightens too – it is soul-crushingly inevitable that it will be “hijacked” by the Nutter Community, and the blogs, Facebook pages, Tweets and YouTube channels of the tin foil hat-wearing fruit loop brigade will soon fill up with more crap than a blocked toilet.

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Comet Lovejoy will soon be declared a threat to Earth, it will be blamed for anything and everything bad which happens in the world while it is in the sky, and it will be hailed as “Nibiru” by some too.

Dribbling, drooling lunatics the lot of them. Don’t fall for their lies. Don’t believe a word you hear from the mouths or read from the keyboards of these crackpots. These are the same losers who insist the Apollo missions were faked, that Bigfoot is real, and that there is a mysterious “Second Sun” out there in the solar system. Sitting in their musty-smelling bedrooms or their parents’ basements, tapping away at their computers, surrounded by fading X-Files posters and box sets of Conspiracy Theory dvds, they will tell you that Comet Lovejoy might change orbit and hit Earth, or shower us with lethal meteorites, or is actually an alien spaceship… and they have said exactly the same things about every bright comet discovered in the past decade. Amazingly, none of their looney tunes predictions has ever come true. But that doesn’t stop them, and without any shame or conscience they scare naive and scientifically ignorant people with their videos, blog posts and Tweets again and again, every time a new comet or asteroid is discovered. And they never apologise, ever, when their predictions are proved to be absolute BS.

It’s pathetic. They’re pathetic. Ignore them. The night sky and the universe are magical and wondrous enough without making up BS about them.

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So, that’s it. Comet Lovejoy is in the sky now, as you read this, and you can find it, observe it and photograph it with the information here. Now get out there and hunt it down! 🙂

Hope you saw Santa….

Well, did you manage to see “Santa” crossing the sky last night?

Large areas of the country had a clear sky at just after 5.15, which allowed many people to see the International Space Station passing over the UK, and some took my advice in an earlier post and their kids outside to show them it and told them it was Santa setting off on his rounds. After my blog post was picked up on Facebook and Twitter, Shared and reTweeted like mad, by the end of last night this blog had been viewed more than 45 THOUSAND times, the vast majority of those visits from people wanting to know how to see “Santa” in their sky. I know many of them managed to, too, because some lovely comments have been left here. Thank you for all of those!

( Inevitably some people moaned about the whole thing, saying that it was wrong to tell kids the space station was Santa, and that we should be telling them what it really is instead. Jeez, talk about missing the point. Seriously, kids grow up so quickly nowadays, there are so many pressures on them, so many dangers all around them, what is the harm in letting them be kids just a little longer and giving them just a few, brief, innocent minutes of magic by looking up and believing they’re actually seeing Santa flying across the sky? )

So, if you are one of those people who managed to see Santa, and your little ones were delighted by it, that’s wonderful! I hope that when they’re a bit older and able to enjoy such things you’ll take them outside and show them the space station and help them realise what an amazing thing that is – a real spaceship, with people inside it, crossing their sky…! It might even get them interested in astronomy as a hobby. I hope so; it’s a lot of fun. If anyone wants any advice about starting off in the hobby, just drop me a line, I’ll be happy to help if I can.

Oh, and after telling all those thousands of people how and when to see Santa, I couldn’t see him myself because it was cloudy. As the great lady once sang – isn’t it ironic? Don’t ya think?

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, everyone, wherever you’re reading this.

67P on APOD

Well, Christmas came early for me today… 🙂

Woken by Peggy’s “I’m hungry! Feed me!” mewling at 05.40 – she’s much better now after her recent snottery cold – I knew there was no way I would get back to sleep, so I went online to check the overnight Tweets and FB posts – and, following a Twitter link, found a lovely surprise on the Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) website…

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Wow… I mean, WOW… they made my “comet cliffs” picture, posted here a few days ago, APOD!!!

I am so, so happy about that, seriously. Not just because personally it is nice to have an image which took a long time to make being seen and shared so widely now, but mainly because it shows why the ESA decision to regularly release navcam images from the ROSETTA mission was the right one to take – it has allowed people like me to use ROSETTA images for Outreach, and to promote the mission to the media and the public. Every reTweet and every FB share and comment proves how much interest in the mission there is out here. People are blown away by that image and the view of the cliffs it shows, so thank you AGAIN to ESA for letting us see the navcam images and allowing us to use and play with them! 🙂

Sadly… yes, you knew this was coming, didn’t you… this is in stark contrast to the continuing behaviour of the OSIRIS team, which simply refuses to share anything with anyone. OSIRIS must have taken many hundreds of images by now, and half a dozen or so have been released. It is impossible, IMPOSSIBLE, that every one of those images is SO important it has to be kept under wraps. Therefore they are keeping hold of them because they want to, and don’t want to share them with the world. With *us*, the public, who, ultimately, through taxes, pay for space missions. And at a time of austerity and global troubles, when it is becoming increasingly hard for Governments, scientists and space enthusiasts to justify the huge amounts of money spent on space research, to have scientists deliberately keeping images back from the public is not just wrong, it is, frankly, bloody stupid. Without public support space exploration will not happen in the future. The attitude of the OSIRIS team is a stinging slap across the face to every person who has contributed to it financially – to the guy stacking shelves in the supermarket, the nurse struggling through a night shift, the care worker looking after a dying woman. Undoing all the great work done by ESA, and the rest of the ROSETTA mission, the OSIRIS team are making scientists seem like a selfish, disconnected elite again, which is wrong. And dangerous.

And it is worth saying, again, that this is not ESA’s fault. They have about as much influence over the OSIRIS team as I do over the Cumbrian weather, which is absolutely APPALLING at the moment. ESA has made huge strides in Outreach in recent years and ROSETTA Outreach in particular has been spectacular. The stunning Ambition film, the cute animations, the informative blogs, websites and videos have all been fantastic. But the OSIRIS team is essentially a mission within the ROSETTA mission. They’re basically an independent group running their own private space mission which hitched a ride to Mars onboard ROSETTA. No-one thinks it unfair that the scientists should be allowed to have first go at the images, and be allowed to do their science, to write their journals and papers using the most dramatic, paradigm-shifting images. But they have taken it to a ridiculous extreme, retreating into their castle, pulling up the drawbridge and laughing down at us from the towers like those French knights in Month Python and the Holy Grail. It’s obvious by now that OSIRIS team cares nothing about peer pressure, public opinion or media interest. Maybe they’ll see the error of their ways in the future, when mission extensions are discussed and their lack of engagement with the media and their arrogant dismissal of the public’s interest has a spotlight shone on it. I hope they are made to squirm.

In the meantime, yes, very chuffed about my image making APOD. If an absolute amateur like me can make something like that, just with very simple photo processing software and a laptop, which people react to so strongly and so positively, just imagine what the reaction would be if the OSIRIS team released some of their high resolution images…

Review: the Heavens Above App is here..!

As well as spending long hours staring at misty nebulae and glittering star clusters through their telescopes, many amateur astronomers now also enjoy satellite- and space station-spotting. They use various websites and phone apps to obtain satellite visibility predictions for where they live (or will be, if travelling to a dark sky location, maybe a star camp or public observing night somewhere) and then enjoy watching a satellite drifting serenely across the sky and knowing which one of the thousands it is.

There are some really good Apps available now, all of which provide the user with detailed lists of satellite passes visible to them, and like me you probably already have one or more of them on your phone, or tablet, already. But as good as they are, I have always wished there was an App version of the wonderful and incredibly popular Heavens Above website, which has been the GoTo site for space station pass times and Iridium Flare times for quite a few years now.

Well, good news – there finally is! And not only is it actually *better* than the website, because it has actually shows you where in the sky an Iridium flare will occur, it’s free!

Here’s the useful “Nightly Events” Menu from the App… you can see it tells you when Moonset, Sunset and other events occur. Tapping on each satellite entry brings up a map showing the track of that satellite across the sky.

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Most people though will use the App – like the website – for getting the times of when they can see the International Space Station and Iridium Flares from their location. And the App is just like the website for ISS predictions, it brings up a chart showing the track of the ISS across your sky. The difference is, using your phone or tablet’s GPS, it draws a much more accurate and “personal” chart than the website does…

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(yes, there are ads on the bottom, not a problem, it’s a small price to pay for such an excellent App).

But where this App really comes into its own, I think, is for predicting Iridium Flares. After I downloaded the App from Google Play I noticed that the Iridium Flare charts were marked with a symbol which I assumed showed the *exact* spot in the sky where the flare will burst into life. Hmmm… if that was true, then it would mean you could go out and be looking in the right place at the right time, instead of looking in roughly the right direction. It also meant you could aim your camera at that spot to photograph the flare. Fantastic! Well, fantastic if it worked… I decided to check.

Up I went to the castle one evening last week, ready to watch a flare, as predicted by the App.This is the chart it gave me, draw for Kendal castle…

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And the App told me the flare would be here, beneath Cassiopeia…

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So how accurate was it? Well, I pointed my camera at that part of the sky, and at the precise time predicted a flare appeared in the sky. Click on the image to see for yourself how accurate the App was…

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Yep, bang on! Very impressed with that! 🙂

So, there you go… a fantastic new satellite- and ISS-spotting App is now available for all you skywatchers! You can download it from Google Play if you’re an Android user. iOS? Don’t know, sorry, but just check for “Heavens Above” and if it’s there you’ll find it.

ROSETTA at the AGU in San Francisco

In my last ROSETTA post, talking about the continuing lack of images from the OSIRIS team, I ended by saying this…

Oh well, after sitting on them for so long, they have no choice but to share those images this week, at the AGU in San Francisco. Can’t wait to see them! 🙂

Well, I was wrong. Very wrong.

The presentations from various teams and scientists involved in the ROSETTA mission were, I think it’s fair to say, the most eagerly-anticipated of the whole AGU event, and the hall was, by all accounts, packed full to bursting for all of them, reflecting the huge scientific and media interest in the mission and its groundbreaking exploration of Comet 67P. And, as we had expected they would, scientists from some of the instruments and cameras onboard ROSETTA released results, and images, to complement their presentations. So we were able to see treats like this gorgeous new, enhanced view from the CIVA camera, showing the cliff (which has been christened “Perihelion Cliff” apparently) which is looming over the Philae lander…

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We also saw new images taken by the ROLIS camera on the underside of Philae, which show fascinating detail on the surface as it came in to land…

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And everyone was very impressed with this remarkable image, which is blurred because it was actually taken by Philae as it bounced off the surface of the comet after its first landing attempt…

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But as amazing as those pictures were – and congratulations to the teams behind them, and THANK you, all of you, for releasing them! – of course what we were all really wanting to see were the close-up images of the comet’s surface, the ones we have been promised since ROSETTA launched. Surely, we all thought, SURELY the OSIRIS team was going to relent and release some of their Smaug horde of images in San Francisco? They’d have to, right?

Wrong. They did it again. They shafted us again.

Not only did the OSIRIS team stop their presentations from being broadcast online, via streaming video, like other talks were, but they didn’t release a single image to the media afterwards. Oh they showed images, lots of them, and they were by all accounts every bit as breathtaking as we imagined they would be. How do we know this? Because although the journalists and scientists watching those presentations weren’t allowed to take photographs of the screen (which is fair enough, if I was a scientist responsible for taking pin-sharp images I wouldn’t want grotty, grainy, out of focus JPG versions of them, with someone’s head in the way, being posted online) they were free to Tweet and blog about what they were seeing, and what they were being told, and as you can see they were gushing in their praise and excitement…

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Sound FANTASTIC, don’t they? And a journalist writing for the prestigious magazine Nature had this to say…

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Imagine what they saw in that hall…

I don’t know how many OSIRIS images were shown during the AGU ROSETTA presentations, but not one of them, not a single one of them, was published for use by the media, meaning, yet again, that the public – who, I will keep saying until I’m blue in the face, effectively paid for the photos to be taken, because the ROSETTA mission was funded by European tax payers – have been denied images they should be allowed to see.

One of the OSIRIS images shown during the AGU presentations would have captured the attention of the world’s media, and brought ROSETTA back into the spotlight. Instead, the BBC led with the blurry (though very cool in its own right) ROLIS image shown above. How ridiculous is it that when there are images available showing an alien world in jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring detail, images which would capture the public’s imagination, the image which is shown shows… well… nothing?

This getting beyond a joke now, it really is. It is nothing short of disgraceful.

The reluctance of the OSIRIS team to release its blessed images is now well known, and they have given reasons for it. They are keeping their images to themselves, they say, because they want to “protect their science”. They fear that if they release their images, other scientists not on their team will use those images to do cometary science of their own, and beat the OSIRIS team to the publication of the all-important scientific papers and journals professional scientists’ careers are made by. I have always given them the benefit of the doubt about that. After all, you have to trust them when they say that this kind of thing is possible, and no-one wants to see any of the OSIRIS team’s careers put at risk after all their years of hard work. That would be selfish beyond words.

But the actions of the OSIRIS team at the AGU have proved what a load of utter crap that justification is. It’s just rubbish, pure and simple, a lame excuse at best, and a blatant lie at worst. Because, really, seriously, if the OSIRIS team was so desperate to stop its images being used by other scientists, would they really have SHOWN those very images to HUNDREDS of those scientists, and JOURNALISTS, at one of the biggest international science conferences of the year?

Do me a favour. They must think we’re stupid.

I’ll say again: while it is understandable that the OSIRIS team needs to keep certain very important and significant images to itself, in order to use them for scientific research, it is simply not possible that every single OSIRIS image being taken needs to be kept secret. The OSIRIS team has simply decided to keep every image to itself, it’s as simple as that. They simply don’t want anyone else to see them.

One of the commenters on the ESA ROSETTA mission blog has suggested that ESA should apologise for the lack of OSIRIS images. That’s wrong. ESA has no need to apologise for the continuing lack of OSIRIS images, because they have no influence over the release of OSIRIS images, or over the actions of the OSIRIS team itself. ESA is running a fantastic mission, and is doing all it can to support it. Its Outreach efforts to the media and the public have been exemplary – the AMBITION short SF film was groundbreaking, and the cute animated adventures of ROSETTA and PHILAE recently won a big award. No. No blame should be put on ESA. What has become clear since ROSETTA arrived at 67P is that the OSIRIS team is essentially – or at least sees itself as – running a totally different space mission, independant from ROSETTA. Having hitched a ride to the comet onboard a spacecraft funded by the public and the countries of Europe, the OSIRIS team now feels no obligation to, and has Absolutely No Interest At All in, sharing its images with the public, the media or the world at large. This is disgraceful.

It’s also a great shame, because after ESA has made such HUGE strides in recent years re Outreach and media relations, having successfully shaken off the old image of a space agency which is very poor at Outreach, the OSIRIS team, with its selfish and arrogant image hording policy, is now damaging ESA’s public image. To say they are “protecting their science” by not publishing images, and then to show those images to halls packed to bursting point with fellow scientists, many of them rivals, shows just what contempt they have for the space enthusiast community and the public at large.In fact, they seem to have a level of contempt for their fellow ROSETTA mission scientists; they are not sharing their images with their colleagues, and at the AGU they would not even allow their presentations to be streamed to an overflow hall, when there was just not enough room. At best, paranoia, and at worst arrogance beyond belief.

One can only hope that future ESA missions insist that the science teams, and their PIs, are, under their contracts, obliged to share their results more generously, because this situation is just not acceptable.This is something the new DG of ESA MUST tackle as a priority. This kind of debacle must never be allowed to happen again.

The OSIRIS team told us they would be releasing an image a week, which everyone agreed was pathetic, but better than nothing. As it is, we’ve had one image from the OSIRIS team since landing day. They are laughing at us, plain and simple. Well, that’s up to them, but in years to come they will be judged very harshly for their actions, and I can only hope that when it comes to the ROSETTA mission requesting funds for a mission extension the refusal of the OSIRIS team to engage with the media and the public will not go against the mission as a whole. It would be unfair if the other science teams on the mission had to suffer because the OSIRIS team sees itself as above everyone else.

That is probably unfair on some of the team. I’m sure some of them are very uncomfortable with this whole damned pantomime, and are embarrassed by it. I’m sure some of the OSIRIS team would love their images to be released so they could be proud of them, and share them with a curious world. But they aren’t the ones making the decisions. Within the OSIRIS team there are a few people digging their heels in and forbidding the release of the images we were told we would get to see. Or maybe it’s just one person. Whoever it is, they are behaving selfishly, arrogantly and disgracefully.

But they don’t care. It’s obvious they don’t. If they did care, they would release some of their images, so people around the world could share this special moment in the history of space exploration. Those images should be on the aged screens of PCs in poor schools in Africa and Afghanistan, just as they should be on the laptop screens of kids in the computer labs of schools in London and Los Angeles. The people of Europe, who paid for ROSETTA, with taxes taken from their wage packets, should be able to see those images on their phones as they travel back home on the bus, exhausted, after working at their jobs in shops, hospitals and schools. And I know I sound like a scratched CD, and I come across as a bit ranting about this but it is fundamentally, fundamentally wrong that the OSIRIS team is holding on to every image it takes like this. And if no-one else is going to come out and say it, I will: OSIRIS team, stop acting like spoiled brats, stop looking down your noses at the public who got your cameras to Mars for you, and grow up. You are letting the ROSETTA mission, and ESA itself, down.

Anyway, enough about that. I’m sure they don’t give a **** about what people out here think. So let’s move on.

A couple of days ago the ESA team which is releasing the navcam images of 67P set free another absolute beauty, and I managed to make some (I think!) gorgeous enhanced crops from it. Hope you like them…

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…and those are just cropped from low resolution navcam images… Just imagine the detail that must be visible on OSIRIS images… (sigh)…

Oh well, thanks AGAIN to the brilliant ESA team which is releasing the navcam images, and writing the blogs, and press releases; you’re doing a great job, all of you, and I hope you all have some time off over Christmas to grab some rest and kick back a bit after what must have been a very hectic few months. I think you’re going to be even busier next year, as the comet gets closer to the Sun and starts to wake up…

The Cliffs of Churyumov-Gerasimenko

There is a big science conference taking place in San Francisco this week. Scientists – astronomers, geologists, physicists, and others – journalists and educators from all over the globe will be gathering to present papers and share their research with their peers and the world. There will be hundreds of different talks and presentations, and even more posters for attendees to listen to and look at, and anyone with even a passing interest in astronomy is following the event on Twitter (#AGU2014) and other social media sites. This is from the event website…

Nearly 24,000 Earth and space scientists, educators, students, and other leaders are expected at this year’s meeting. In addition, members of the press, guests, and exhibitors will bring the total attendance to more than 25,000.

So, a Big Deal as you can see! And this is the week when the first real heavy science from the ROSETTA comet mission will be released out into the wild by the mission’s scientists, so we might… mightfinally get to see some of the fantastic images taken by the OSIRIS cameras onboard ROSETTA! We will do, surely; how can the mission scientists give a presentation without images? So, unless they’re going to insist that all their images are not reproduced after their talks, or if they show them but then flash those memory wipe pens the Men In Black use into the eyes of every scientist and journalist in the room, later today we should be able to see, finally, some of the wonders the OSIRIS team has been keeping to itself all these months.

I can only imagine how scared and excited those poor OSIRIS images are feeling at this moment. Having been kept chained up in the dungeon beneath the MPS HQ for all these months, in the cold and dark, only let out now and again to be drooled over by the OSIRIS team, a lucky few have been led back up the stairs and into the daylight, given a good hosing down and then dressed in smart clothes ready for their release. They should have been freed from captivity long ago, it’s been disgraceful and cruel, but hopefully by tomorrow morning the internet will be awash with them, and journalists and space enthusiasts alike will be able to appreciate the beautiful, close-up views of the comet’s gas and dust vents, crumbling slopes and steep cliffs the OSIRIS cameras have been taking. Can’t wait to see those, and of course I’ll share them here when they appear.

In the meantime, a couple of days ago the ESA team responsible for releasing the probe’s navcam images put out one of the best yet. If you didn’t see it, here it is…

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Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0

Isn’t that a beauty? Some details from the ESA website: This four-image mosaic comprises images taken from a distance of 20.1 km from the centre of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on 10 December. The image resolution is 1.71 m/pixel and the individual 1024 x 1024 frames measure 1.75 km across. The mosaic is slightly cropped and measures 2.9 x 2.6 km.

Again, full credit – and a huge Thank You – to the ESA team which puts out these images. Without them the mission would have faded into obscurity the day after Philae landed (and we should probably use that term loosely now!) on the comet.

Anyway, as soon as I saw that image I could see one area was just crying out to be cropped and turned into one of my landscape views – there was our best view yet of the towering cliff face on the inside of the small lobe…

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Looking at that part of the image I could see that with a little work (which turned out to be a LOT of work, but never mind!) those cliffs could be isolated and their true magnificence brought out. So, that’s what I started to do, and some time later this is what I came up with… PLEASE click on it to enlarge it…

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Isn’t that something? The view, I mean, not my work (which I will admit I am pretty pleased with). I think that is a genuinely stunning view… just imagine standing there, at the foot of those cliffs, with those huge boulders scattered all around you, craning your head back to look up at the wall looming in front of and above you…

Since I posted that image on Twitter and Facebook it has become very popular, with an amazing number of retweets and Shares, which is obviously very gratifying after all the work that went into it, but more than that I’m delighted for the ROSETTA and ESA teams who took the images and released them, because it just shows how much interest in and passion for the mission there still is “out there”. If only the OSIRIS team could grasp that, and had been sharing some of their images more regularly with us from the start, it would have made a huge difference. Oh well, after sitting on them for so long, they have no choice but to share those images this week, at the AGU in San Francisco. Can’t wait to see them! 🙂