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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! πŸ™‚

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! πŸ™‚

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…