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It has been a quite incredible week for space enthusiasts. yesterday was the Biggie, the historic first test flight of NASA’s “ORION” space capsule which will, they plan… and hope… and believe… will one day carry astronauts back to the Moon, then into deeper space to rendezvous with an asteroid and, eventually, take the first human explorers to Mars. Yesterday’s test flight went extremely well, and after a dramatic launch, captured here magnificently by ace launch photographer Ben Cooper…

ben cooper

( More of Ben’s incredible work here )

…the capsule orbited Earth twice, went out to a distance of more than 3000km – to put that in context, that’s 14x further from Earth than the space station orbits, and farther than any human being has travelled in space since Apollo 17 – before splashing back down in the Pacific almost dead on target. It was a triumph in every respect, and really does herald the dawn of a new era for NASA and human space exploration. Finally, FINALLY, the prospect of humans travelling in space farther than the airlock of the space station doesn’t seem like science fantasy any more. For years NASA has basked lazily in the glory of the Apollo days, looking back on that time with a combination of pride and shame, whilst making hazy, lazy “plans” for the future which never got any further than bloated Powerpoints, fancy YouTube animations and pie-in-the-sky predictions. Now they have a new spacecraft, a spacecraft which works, and which might actually carry men and women to worlds beyond  the Earth one day. I still have very real and depressing doubts that I’ll live to see the first manned expedition to Mars, it’s at least 25 years away, probably more like 35, and I’ll be very old by then, if I’m actually still here. But for the first time in a long time I can now show “NASA’s plans” in my Outreach talks and actually believe what I’m telling my audiences, and that’s a big change.

Actually, I’d put good money on a private company or entrepeneur beating NASA to Mars long before 2039. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the first NASA Mars expedition lands on Mars to an enthusiastic welcome from the SpaceX astronauts who’ve been living on Mars for years already, in Elon Musk’s first private settlement…

So, yes, that was big news. Also in the news was the release of the first images of the dwarf planet Ceres taken by NASA’s DAWN space probe. DAWN will reach Ceres next year, and no doubt will send back images every bit as detailed and fascinating as the ones it took of Ceres’s sister world, Vesta, not too long ago. Because Dawn is still a long, long way from Ceres – 1.2 million km to be precise! – Ceres looks tiny in the image taken on December 1st, just a cluster of pixels really…


Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

…but that’s not the point. The point is it’s there, dead ahead, and soon Dawn will be close enough to Ceres to make its images the best *ever* taken of that intriguing object. When the probe reaches Ceres its cameras will image it in stunning detail, and will turn Ceres from a dot in the sky to a world in its own right, with its own craters, canyons, mountains and other features. Can’t wait to see those!

Meanwhile, on Mars, ignored by most people – including NASA, sadly – the old faithful Mars Exploration Rover “Opportunity” continues its exploration of the rim of the huge Endeavour crater, and despite suffering some serious memory problems – hardly surprising, as she’s an old girl now – has been taking and sending back a steady stream of images from the Red Planet showing all new exciting views. Here’s a colour composite I made from three black and white images taken through red, green and blue filters…


And, of course, we’re still getting beautiful images of Comet 67P from the European Space Agency’s ROSETTA probe. Yesterday the ESA team which has been releasing images taken by ROSETTA’s navcam cameras released another great view…


That’s a really nice view looking at the comet “from the front”, as it were, i.e. looking straight on at the large (and still un-named) crater which was blasted out of the smaller lobe of the comet. With a lot of stretching you can see the jets and plumes of dust now shooting off the comet…


Some of the features on the comet look pretty impressive when cropped and sharpened up a bit too…


Oh go on then, let’s add a bit of crazy colour, just for the hell of it…


Again, a huge thank you to the ESA team – which I know to be small, hard-working and under-resourced – which is keeping us informed about the ROSETTA mission and releasing these images, because if they weren’t it would be essentially a stealth mission, at least as far as images are concerned, because – yes, I’m going to say it again – the team responsible for the OSIRIS camera images clearly has no intention of letting the rest of the world see them. Their reasons have been stated often – they want to protect their science, etc – and you can either agree with those reasons or disagree, that’s up to you. But what is becoming increasingly clear is that the OSIRIS team a) does not feel any need to support the ROSETTA mission as a whole, and sees itself as separate/aloof from the rest of the mission, and b) they have absolutely no ****ing idea how important good public and media Outreach is for the health and support of modern space missions. No, really, they haven’t got a clue, cos if they did they would be releasing some of their pictures. Originally I am sure they had said they would be releasing at least an image a week, but they’ve just ignored that, which is disgraceful really. But they clearly don’t care what people Out Here think of them, which just shows how out of touch with the whole concept of Outreach they are.

Take the missions discussed previously in this post. NASA made sure everyone was able to “go along for the ride” during Orion’s maiden flight, by making sure every part of the flight was broadcast live online. The launch was broadcast live;  after launch cameras mounted on the outside of the Delta IV rocket showed fantastic live streaming video showing the Earth falling away beneath the rocket, and its boosters falling away too…



While Orion was in orbit, cameras mounted inside it and pointing out of the window broadcast live views of the Earth, too…


As Orion fell through the sky, heading towards its splashdown, an unmanned NASA drone sent back live video of THAT too…

Orion descends before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean

…and at the moment of splashdown a camera mounted on the Orion capsule actually showed the waves sloshing OVER the lander as it hit the water! We were able to watch the whole thing, start to finish, because NASA gets how important allowing the public to get to see what they paid for is.

And that image of Ceres might be just a grainy, hazy… something… but it was released to the world just a few days after it was taken. Why? Because the DAWN team clearly “gets” how there are people Out Here desperate to see the images, and join in with Dawn’s epic adventure, albeit remotely.

And, as has been the case with MER images ever since the rovers landed,  those images of Mars taken by Opportunity I used to make my colour view were released just a day or so after they were taken on the red planet. Why? Because right from the very start the MER guys GOT how important it is that people be allowed to follow the mission’s progress, and to see the images being taken with their money.

…meanwhile, the OSIRIS team defiantly and selfishly cling on to every image they’re taking of Comet 67P, arrogantly ignoring the public and media hunger for them. I say again: it is impossible to believe that every single image being taken by the OSIRIS cameras shows something so new, so revolutionary, so incredibly unique that every single one has to be kept under lock and key, that’s simply not feasible. There will be some – many – that look stunning, but actually show nothing of major scientific interest, and could be released just because they look cool, without any risk of non-mission scientists using them for writing papers and stealing the glory from the OSIRIS team. They have just decided to not show the world their pictures. And that’s wrong. No doubt some of the OSIRIS team know this, and aren’t comfortable with the policy, but have to bow to their superiors. But some will be embracing the policy and supporting it wholeheartedly. We can only be glad they don’t work for NASA, or we would never have had those lovely views of Earth from Orion, or seen Ceres as we have this week.

Anyway, it’s their loss. When their images are finally released the world will have moved on and ROSETTA will be old news. We’ll all be drooling over the first close-up images of Ceres, and Pluto, released almost in real time by their camera teams.

And ESA higher ups will be justified in blaming the OSIRIS team and their selfishness for the lack of public and media interest in ROSETTA.

In the meantime, we can look forward to yet more navcam goodies from the ESA team releasing those images. 🙂

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