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67P Revealed

After many long months of waiting we finally, FINALLY have our first really close-up images of the surface of Comet 67P to drool over and enjoy. A few days ago a special issue of the prestigious journal “Science” was published, crammed full of scientific papers based on results from the ROSETTA mission, and many were illustrated with images taken by the probe’s high resolution OSIRIS cameras.

My opinion of the OSIRIS science team’s reluctance/refusal to publish pictures their amazing images of the nucleus of Comet 67P is well known, and despite the criticism and flack I get for it I will never change that opinion. And I’ll come back to it soon, I’m sure. But to criticise them about that again at this time would be churlish and petty, because this must be the highlight of their scientific careers, and they deserve all the praise and congratulations they can get, because the images in the Science special are truly stunning. So, everyone, feast your eyes on these, and revel in our first really close up views of a comet. It’s been a long time coming, and we suffered and endured centuries of superstition, fear and ignorance to get to this point, but we can finally imagine we’re standing on the surface of a comet and see its landscapes and features with our own eyes/. What an incredible thing!

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This image shows “ripples” on the surface (which other people had pointed out on the navcam images) and dust “tails” behind rocks on the surface – proof that ‘wind’, of a sort, blows across the surface of the comet…

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That image shows an “active pit” on the comet – see the dust jets coming out of the hole in the middle?

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Now that’s a fascinating image – it appears to show some kind of fluid or viscous material has flowed out of that hole and spread across the surface…!

And I love this view of the comet taken by OSIRIS from a distance of just 8km…

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Of course, when I saw that I knew it could be turned into more of a landscape view…

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But look at this… this is the image that everyone has been looking forward to seeing – the “goosebumps” on the inside walls of one of the pits in the comet’s surface…

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They stand out a little more clearly with a bit of processing and enhancement…

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And an even closer look shows this…

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Absolutely fascinting! There’s a lot of speculation that that image shows the basic building blocks of comets – tiny roundish dust- and iceballs which collected together to form the comet billions of years ago. Images like this will be dissected very carefully by cometary scientists in the months and years ahead.

So, there you go, we finally have some OSIRIS images, and they are every bit as spectacular as we imagined they would be. Huge congratulations to the OSIRIS team for their fantastic achievement. 🙂

DSS defeated..?

For YONKS now I have been trying to get to grips with an image processing program called “Deep Sky Stacker” which astro photographers use – as its name suggests – to stack photographs of the night sky. I’ve battled with it again and again, trying to get it to stack my “hmmm, ok” pictures into something, well, better. But I’ve never got to grips with it, and always just ended up with a tall grainy black and white monolith of crud…

Well, it turns out that was because DSS really doesn’t like RAW files created by Canon DSLRs, and just spits them out. Great. But I found, after Googling it, that the beta version of DSS positively loves Canon RAWS, so I downloaded that… and hey, whaddya know, it worked…!

Kind of.

It’s early days, but I actually managed to put into DSS some of my recent Comet Lovejoy pics and get out something… better. At least, better than Registax brewed up. I am going to need some proper help with the program, and have to start taking darks and flats and all those other things proper astrophotographers do, but for the first time I actually think it might be worth it, cos my very first efforts gave me these images…

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That’s not bad… the tail stands out pretty well!

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Now that one I am *really* pleased with, because the original half dozen frames all looked like this…

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So I have to be pleased with that, right? I imagine if I can spend half an hour with someone who actually knows their way around DSS I might be able to get something a lot better than I’m getting with Registax…

Actually, this is great timing, because after humming and haahing for well over a year I’ve finally taken the plunge and ordered one of those iOptron star trackers for astrophotography, so the combination of that and a bit of work with DSS should get me some half-decent pics when I go up to the Kielder star camp next month. We’ll see…!

The beauty of 67P

Well, another day and another stunning navcam mosaic release from those wonderful people at ESA’s ROSETTA mission. This time we’re seeing an area of the comet I’m not sure we’ve actually seen before…? It’s certainly an angle we haven’t seen before…

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…and with a bit of work…

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But really, as soon as I saw that image today I saw one section and smiled, because it just screamed out to be cropped and enhanced to make it look… Well, like this…please click on it to enlarge it, as usual…

Imagine you’re flying low over the surface of Comet 67P, hugging the contours of the landscape, up and down over the ridges, scarps and valleys… suddenly the view opens up in front of you, like a curtain being pulled open, and you see *this*…

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Isn’t that a glorious, stunning view? I want to say – again – a HUGE Thank You to the team at ESA which continues to produce and release these navcam views, which allow people all around the world to explore the comet and see new, unbelievable views of it every day. I have no doubt that without their efforts the ROSETTA mission would have slipped out of the spotlight the very day after Philae’s landing, because as everyone knows now, to their shame the OSIRIS team are exploring the comet in secret and not sharing anything – not an image, not a name, not a thing – with anyone outside of their offices. But thanks to the ESA team releasing these navcams, the public and the media are still aware that Europe has a spacecraft exploring a comet, out there in the depths of space.

Finally for this post an absolutely unashamed flight of fancy…

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Differences…

Yesterday was a fantastic day for space enthusiasts/advocates/geeks whatever you want to call us. First we had a new navcam release from the ESA ROSETTA team, which shows Comet 67P in stunning detail and from a particularly striking angle. Here it is…

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Isn’t that a stunning view? The huge (and STILL unnamed!!!!) crater at the ‘front’ of the smaller lobe looks magnificent, its floor strewn with rubble and huge boulders, while over there on the front of the larger lobe, that plateau with its guarding cliffs looks incredible. Of course, I set to work on that image and created some new “visions” of it, purely for my (and hopefully your!) enjoyment, I’m not suggesting they are scientifically valuable or anything like that…

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And really hitting the boost button reveals a lot of activity coming off the comet…

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Then, out of the blue, without any real warning, I read a justifiably breathless Tweet from Planetary Society blogger and science writer Emily Lakdawalla informing her Followers and the world that NASA had posted images of the dwarf planet Ceres taken by the DAWN space probe just a week or so ago! Look at this!

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Now ok, that might LOOK like just a grey smeary blurry mottled mess, and it’s not as good as the images of Ceres taken by the Hubble telescope,  but it *almost* is, and thanks to the better lighting it does show much more tantalising hints of what might be craters and other features on its surface. DAWN arrives at Ceres in March, and is getting closer every minute, so the next set of images released by the team, in just a few days, will be at least as good as Hubble’s and probably even better. What an exciting encounter this is going to be – a whole new world (albeit a dwarf one) to see close up for the very first time in history, to map and chart and place names on. True exploration!

So while the latest images of Ceres might not be as sharp and detailed as the ROSETTA navcams of 67P, they are still very exciting to look at, and we should say a huge THANK YOU to the Dawn team for putting them online for us all to see.

And in a way, that’s as important a thing as the actual images themselves. You see, the images of Ceres released yesterday were taken on January 13th, barely a week ago. Just think about that. Without making a big deal out of it, just because, in this modern age it is the Right Thing To Do, scientists flying a space probe to an incredibly exciting place, to a dwarf planet, took photos of it and let the world see them after just a week. And they will, they tell us, share the rest of the images they take too. What a stark contrast – and you knew this was coming, I’m sure – to the OSIRIS team currently photographing Comet 67P in secret from the ROSETTA space probe.

Clearly, the DAWN team get it. No bleating about the need for a “proprietary period”, no top secret presentations, no looking down arrogantly on the public, nothing like that. Clearly they “get” the importance of media and public outreach, and want the rest of the world to join in with the excitement of this bold mission to explore a new world out there in the depths of space.

You can read the press release about the images, and watch a funky animation of Ceres rotating, here…

http://www.nasa.gov/jpl/dawn-delivers-new-image-of-ceres/#.VL5rty4uffc

So, you see, there’s the proof, again. NASA has shown us, again, that images taken by space probes can be released to, and shared with, the public, and the media, without the scientists involved having to worry about their careers being threatened or their discoveries being scooped. If the DAWN team feels able to do it… and the Mars Exploration Rover team… and the Mars Science Laboratory team… and the CASSINI team… then why doesn’t the OSIRIS team? It’s beyond ridiculous. And I’m sorry but it really does show, very clearly, that the OSIRIS team doesn’t feel it *can’t* release its images, it shows they just don’t *want* to. Which is very, very sad.

But it’s up to them. When 2015 turns into 2016, and the Reviews of the Year are proclaiming the past 12 months’ successes of Opportunity, of the Mars Science Laboratory, of New Horizons and Dawn, the Rosetta mission’s success will be celebrated too, but it will be the images taken by its navcams which are shown on the TV and across the internet to illustrate that success, not the OSIRIS team’s images. I’m sure the OSIRIS team won’t care about that. But it will be a great shame for ESA, which has made huge strides on outreach and engaging with the public. They deserve better.

A quick look at Lovejoy…

Against all the odds – and predictions of weather presenters and Apps – the clouds above Kendal parted for half an hour or so last night (Jan 19th) allowing me to grab a few more images of Comet Lovejoy. Quite pleased with these, they show a lot of tail, considering they were taken in a hurry and from the middle of a small woodland clearing in the middle of badly light-polluted Kendal… 🙂

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Jan 19c

Under A Comet’s Tail

Astronomy must surely be the most frustrating and potentially heartbreaking hobby of all. Thanks to the laws of Physics we can predict when incredible astronomical events will occur long before they happen, which means we then have to wait months, sometimes years, sometimes even decades until they happen. And then, after all that waiting and anticipation, on the day, or the night, if the sky is cloudy we see nothing and there is absolutely nothing we can do about it. I’ve been fascinated by space and the night sky since I was knee high to R2D2, and an active amateur astronomer since my early teens, and honestly I’ve lost count of the number of meteor showers, eclipses and displays of the northern lights I’ve looked forward to seeing, only to have them ruined and stolen from me by a cloudy sky. It’s gutting, it really is, and no matter how old or experienced you are, no matter how philosophical you try to be about it, it’s impossible not to feel absolutely sick as a pig when you know there’s something fantastic going on “up there”, and others are seeing it, but you’re not because if the weather. And I know it’s not very mature, but every time it happens I still glower up at the cloudy sky, shake my head at it in disbelief and curse “You utter b*****d!” at it.

And comets are especially bad for this kind of frustration, because the appearance of a bright comet in the sky is SO rare, SO special, that having one in the sky but being unable to see it because of the weather just turns amateur astronomers into snarling, bitter wrecks of human beings. We check the sky every five minutes every day a naked eye comet is in the sky, convincing ourselves it will clear up later, and then when sunset comes and the sky remains an orange, curdled mess we hen curse it to damnation for not allowing us to see the rare visitor.

And of course now it’s even worse, because thanks to the Internet we can see just what we are missing. In Ye Olden Days we would simply resign ourselves to our fate and forget it for that night, maybe read a book, watch telly or go to the pub or the cinema instead. But now, oh, now if our sky is cloudy we plonk ourselves down in front of our computers, or go online on our phones or tablets and read, on Twitter and Facebook, and in astronomy group message boards, breathlessly excited reports of other skywatchers blessed with better weather. Worse still, we can see and drool enviously over pictures of the comet being taken elsewhere. We torment ourselves.

And Comet Lovejoy has been especially frustrating for many of us Up North here in the UK. For the past couple of months we have read reports of it from the southern hemisphere, and seen photos of it taken from there, which made it clear it was a fascinating, dynamic and lovely comet indeed. It was frustrating not being able to see it too, but you can’t really moan that the Earth itself is in the way, can you? So we just bided our time and waited for it to drift northwards far enough to clear our horizon and start to work its way up into our northern sky…

So when all the weather apps and weather forecasters agreed that it would be a “bitterly cold and frosty night” here in Cumbria last Sunday, members of the astronomical society I belong to drew up plans to head out of town and have a hastily-organised “Comet Watch” at a nearby dark sky spot. And true enough, after a day of clock- and sky-watching, as the Sun set on Sunday there was a lot more clear sky than cloud in the sky, so we headed out of Kendal towards Old Hutton full of confidence and anticipation! However, by the time we got there the cloud had rolled in, covering 2/3 of the sky, but there was still enough clear sky in the west to allow us to glimpse Venus and Mercury snuggling up close in the twilight…

V & M

Soon after I took that photo another EAS member, Simon White, joined Stella, Carol Grayson and myself. Simon is our Society’s “ace astro-photographer” and as he set up his very impressive array of kit the sky did begin to improve. So, with Simon and Carol setting up their gear, Stella and I were free to just get out bearings and look at the sky. Eventually a rip appeared in the east, allowing part of Orion to be seen through the tattered tear…

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…but the comet stayed frustratingly hidden from view. By now, despite the cloud cover, it was more than a little chilly, but everyone had dressed appropriately, and with her half a dozen or more layers in there was no way Stella was going to be cold…!

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I believe her new TV series begins soon…

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FINALLY the cloud almost overhead thinned just enough to allow me my first glimpse of the comet…

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…and soon after, with the cloud now well and truly in retreat, I managed to take this shot, hinting at the success of the evening to come…

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As predicted, the cloud DID clear, and we all spent the next four hours enjoying wonderful views, and taking gorgeous pictures of Comet Lovejoy. It was a little hazy at first, but at some point a good gust of wind blew the haze and gunk away and left us with a sky literally glittering with stars. And so we took our photos of the comet, which was looking beautiful in binoculars and through my small 70mm refractor too…

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As that simulated view shows it was very close to a star at the start of our night’s viewing, but as the minutes and hours passed the comet gradually moved away from that star. It was fun to watch the distance between the comet and star increasing.

I think I’ll look back on that night as my best “Lovejoy night”. Not just because I had great views of it, or because I took great (I think!) photos of it, but because a) everything went right with the weather, and b) the company, and the good laugh we all had. Astronomy can be a very lonely, very solitary hobby, especially here in the UK. Our weather is so godawful, and so unreliable that organising group events can be a complete waste of time, and after several disappointments in a row many observers decide to shun group events and just take off on their own when a gap in the cloud appears. And I enjoy this “solo astronomy” as much as anyone; it’s very relaxing and very good for the soul to just stand out under a starry sky, on your own, at two in the morning, when all the normal, sensible people are tucked up in bed. But sometimes it’s nice to share an event or an experience with others, and Sunday night was just such a time. We all had a great time together, spreading apart when we needed to do our own thing, and coming together now and then to compare pictures and views, a cup of coffee or a slice of delicious cake. Simon got some fantastic images of Lovejoy (and the currently out-bursting comet Finlay) through his telescope, and Carol got some lovely pics with her camera too. I think Stella just enjoyed being there with everyone, having a laugh. Here she is (left) with Carol…

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I took a good couple of hundred photographs on Sunday night, and Carol and Simon were clicking away like crazy too. But at one point I made Carol and Simon stop taking photographs, step away from their camera and telescope, and join me and Stella at my little refractor so everyone could actually LOOK at Lovejoy. I think it is very important to do do this, and always try to insist people I’m with at such an event take a few minutes to just LOOK. It’s so easy to get caught up in the photography that you forget to actually look, and when you get home it hits you that you didn’t actually see the thing you were photographing, you only saw your photos of it, glowing on the back of your camera. That’s why I told Simon and Carol to come over to my humble little telescope and made them look into its eyepiece and LOOK at Lovejoy. It was a serenely beautiful sight, too – a big, grey puffball of light slowly and silently edging away from a crooked line of stars, and if you used averted vision the tail became visible too. It looked a lot like this, in fact…

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By ten thirty pm, five hours after our arrival, the comet was swinging around and down into an area of light pollution, so Carol, Stella and I packed up and headed home, leaving Simon on his own, happily taking more of his brilliant photographs. When we got back Stella had to unpack herself before she could drink a cup of tea…

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…and I started working on my pictures, but knowing I had to be up for work very early the next day I only processed a couple. I’ve now had a chance to work on more of them, so here they are, in no particular order. Really, really pleased with them… 🙂

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Lovejoy Jan 18 2015

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It was a brilliant night with four sky-watchers enjoying a starry sky, and each other’s company, standing beneath a comet’s glowing tail.

What more could you want? 🙂

 

Comet Hunting…

I’ve had a very busy couple of days hunting for Comet Lovejoy…

First of all, Friday night… wow, what a hunt that was! A HUGE thanks goes to my fellow EAS member Carol Grayson who took us out on a comet hunting expedition after dark. Typically, after Kendal had basked in wintery sunshine all day, as darkness fell on Friday evening a great filthy thick quilt of cloud was thrown over us, and I managed to get only two or three pictures from my backyard before the stars, and the comet, vanished from view. But our plan had always been to head south, and east, and that’s what we did, with Kendal falling farther and farther behind until the bright lights of The South loomed up ahead of us. For a long time all we saw was orange sky, the light pollution bouncing off the cloud just hiding everything, but finally the clouds cleared and we saw stars above and on all sides of us again, so we found a place to stop and take a look. By this time we were way down past Clitheroe, 40 plus miles from Kendal, so there was considerable light pollution, and although I’m sure the poor souls who live in that part of the country were thinking “Wow! Look at all those stars” that night, for us, used to darker views, looking at the sky from there was like looking at and photographing the comet on a brightly moonlit night up here, but that didn’t matter – there was the comet! And it showed up well on photographs, despite the false moonlight.

So between seven and half twelve we basically hopscotched our way home to Kendal between various dark spots, grabbing images when we could and seeing the comet through binoculars and my trusty Travelscope refractor. It was a fantastic, frustrating, rewarding night, and again, a *huge* thank you to Carol for finding clear skies for us on a night when Kendal was a dead loss. Here are my best pics…

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And then last night, which wasn’t quite so successful…! 🙂

After getting back from a fun day at the Camping and Caravanning Club show down in Manchester with Stella (note: the rather grandly-named “Event City” turns out to be more like “Event Warehouse”), the highlight of which was probably the travel show *next* door, where we were treated to flamenco and salsa dancing and free Cuban rum, I spent most of the evening dashing in and out of the flat, lured out into the freezing evening by a teasing flash of an ankle by Jupiter in the sky, only to have the sky completely cloud over again before it started to snow, but eventually I DID manage to grab a few frames of Comet Lovejoy inbetween yet more flurries of snow. But it was a bit of a waste of time to be honest; there was so much moisture in the air that trailing your hand through the air almost left ripples, and every frame I took was clagged up with light pollution diffusing through the haze. But hey, I managed to get a couple, and they have processed just enough to bring the comet swimming up out of the murk, so not wasted effort, and fun to see how it had moved.

Here are the pics, for what they’re worth…

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Tonight still promises to be marrow-chillingly cold and clear, and with no Moon in the way an epic photographic session from a dark sky site beckons…. will post any pics I take here, so check back if you can! 🙂

Another legacy of ROSETTA – Change within ESA..?

ESA has released another gorgeouus mosaic of four navcam images of comet 67P. If you haven’t seen it, here it is…

Comet_on_10_January_2015_NavCam

See? Told you it was gorgeous! And with a bit of “work” this is what I transformed that image into…

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Really love that view of the comet, we can see lots of detail on the neck and across its “back”.

That, as I said, is a mosaic of navcam images. Unknown to many people, this isn’t actually the only camera ROSETTA is carrying and using to photograph the comet. ROSETTA also carries “OSIRIS” cameras, which are much higher spec and have been taking photographs of features on the comet’s surface with unbelievably high resolution. Unfortunately, only a handful of those images have been released, because the OSIRIS team has decided to keep them for themselves, which I think is a disgrace, for reasons I’ve outlined here in detail many times. I have had a lot of support for my stance on this – many people feel we should be seeing images taken by the OSIRIS cameras – but I’ve had some criticism and scolding too, some of it very personal and angry. But that’s ok, I’m a big boy, I can take it, and I know I’m only saying what many, many other people are thinking and feeling but dare not say, for reasons of their own. And also, obviously, when you write a public blog expressing your views then it’s perfectly fine for others to challenge or criticise those views, freedom of speech and all that.

But it seems I am not alone in my feelings towards the OSIRIS team. Another high profile figure in the space community has come out this week and criticised them and their approach. Who? Who is this brave person?

Only Jean-Jacques Dordain, that’s who!

Who?

He’s THE DIRECTOR GENERAL OF THE EUROPEAN SPACE AGENCY itself!!!!

Yes, the boss of ESA, the guy at the top, is hacked off with the OSIRIS team too. So you see, it’s not just me, or a few greedy image processors in “the space community” who think this is wrong. The guy who sits at the very top of ESA thinks so too.

Here’s what he had to say, taken from a characteristically excellent BBC report by Jonathan Amos

Even I’ve tried to get more data,” Mr Dordain said. “I might be the DG but I’m also a fan of Rosetta and [its lander] Philae. It’s a problem; I don’t deny it’s a problem. But it’s a very difficult problem, too,”

Yes, you read that correctly. The Director General of the European Space Agency isn’t able to see the pictures being taken by the OSIRIS team.

And if anyone out there, anyone thinks that’s acceptable, then they’re living on another planet, seriously.

Mr Dordain goes on to say…

Maybe what we should do is distinguish better between data that would be considered absolutely key to making scientific discoveries and can be kept under wraps before publication [in journals], and the data that can be released to the public much sooner.”

…which is EXACTLY what I’ve been saying here for MONTHS!!! It is just not possible to believe that every single image taken by the OSIRIS team is SO ground-breaking, SO paradigm-shifting, SO revolutionary that they all have to be kept under lock and key, that’s just bloody ridiculous. It’s simply a matter of attitude, arrogance and sheer bloody minded stubbornness.

For example, when the ESA team released its latest navcam mosaic, I heard that the OSIRIS team had actually released a new image too! Praise be!! What would it show? I wondered… the inside of one of the gas and dust vents? Rocks caught in the act of falling down a slope?

Nope…it was just an old image, from last NOVEMBER, a wide angle shot showing the comet’s increase in activity.

Comet_activity_22_November_2014

Now that’s very pretty, very striking in its own way, all those jets and plumes and all, but let’s be honest. When you think about all they could have shown us, including those close up images already shown at science conferences, that blurry, wide angle, low resolution image is another two fingers stuck up at everyone asking to see what OSIRIS is really capable of – including ESA’s own Director General – isn’t it?

Ah, whatever. Let them get on with it. History will be their judge. In the meantime, let’s hope that the DG is so frustrated by being treated like the rest of us that he really looks at this issue and learns lessons from it which will be taken onboard for future missions, including, and especially, ExoMars. For now, here’s that last image blasted to make it look even more dramatic…

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More ROSETTA navcam loveliness soon, I’m sure!

Beagle 2 Spotted

If you felt a strange disturbance in the space enthusiast community Force a couple of days ago… as if millions of voices cried out in anguish all at once… it was because of a Big Announcement that lit up Twitter and Facebook like a picture of a cute kitten sleeping in a hammock – the British Beagle 2 spaceprobe, lost for the past 13 years after failing to “phone home” after attempting to land on Mars on Christmas Day 2003, had been found on photos taken by the HiRISE camera onboard NASA’s MRO orbiter.

beagle HiRISE

Why was this such huge news? Because the – apparent – loss of Beagle 2 has been an open wound for British and many other space enthusiasts for over a decade now. Built on a shoestring budget and masterminded by the charismatic and brilliant scientist Professor Colin Pillinger, Beagle 2 defied all the odds and hitched a ride to Mars onboard the ESA probe Mars Express. It was sent to Mars to look for life, using an ingenious Swiss Army Knife like suite of scientific instruments, and when it detached from the Mars Express probe and started its long fall to Mars, millions of people held their breath and waited to hear it had landed safely. But we heard nothing. All day on that memorable, frustrating, sickening, disappointing Christmas Day we turned on every TV and radio bulletin (this was pre-24 hour rolling news, remember) in the hope that a signal had been heard from Beagle, but nothing… nothing… nothing…

I have very vivid personal memories of that time. As a Mars mad British space enthusiast Beagle 2 was a mission that meant a lot to me. I was desperate for it to succeed. I had some problems with it, I’ll be honest. I *hated* the fact that it carried a “Spot painting” by artist Damien Hirst, to be used as a photographic calibration guide; the scientific, sensible part of me knew that was a good idea, that it made sense… dots… colours…  but the grouchy, artistic side of me was royally hacked off that Beagle was carrying something by someone I thought of (and still think of, to be honest) as typical of the overpaid, overhyped, publicity-worshipping Emperor’s New Clothes “modern artists”, who, encouraged by smart arse critics, create utter rubbish in the name of art and then fool everyone into thinking it’s really clever. It just seemed wrong to me that a space probe landing on Mars, built by the land which gave the world Turner, Constable and others, would be carrying to the New World a painting of spots made by a guy who cut sheep in half, you know? And as for that plinky plonky Blur tune as the call sign… well, I wasn’t a huge fan of Damon Albarn either, and I had harboured (totally unrealistic!) fantasies of the theme music from “The Sky At Night” being broadcast from Mars, so Blur’s tune didn’t do a thing for me.

Oh, but the science! The idea that OUR probe, “plucky little Beagle 2” – an elegant, pocket watch of a spacecraft, which had been designed by someone the press saw as a fabulously eccentric British boffin scientist, complete with mutton chops and yokel accent, and had been taken to Mars grudgingly at best by ESA – might be the one to discover life on Mars was intoxicating, dizzying! I spoke on the radio about it many times in the build-up to the landing, and by Christmas Day was so fired up about it I could hardly think about anything else.

And then the great deflation… press briefing after press briefing with no signal to report. It was gutting. I remember sitting on my mum’s stairs, like Kermit, with my laptop on my knee, waiting to see someone break the brilliant news that Beagle had phoned home… but that news never came, and we all went to bed on Christmas Day deflated and disappointed, but still hopeful that Beagle would bark the next day, or the next… or the next..?

But Beagle didn’t bark on Boxing Day, or on any other day after, and eventually the team had to accept that their spacecraft had been lost. It must have been as if someone had pulled the ground out from under them.

And yet, through it all, Professor Pillinger, sitting in on every press briefing, always ready to answer questions, remained optimistic, and encouraging, and noble. Even when the press and the Government – which had been preparing to steal some of the glory for the Beagle mission had it succeeded – started turning against him, criticising the waste of money, etc, he remained above it all, tall, composed and honourable, even though he must have been screaming and punching at walls inside.

Over the years the fate of Beagle 2 has been the cause for much speculation. Did its parachutes fail? Did it crash into the surface? Did it fall over a cliff? Did it land safely only for its radio to fail? What happened to it? Over time, somehow, a consensus began to emerge that the probe had either burned up in the atmosphere or smashed into the ground, and people began to hunt for its wreckage on photos of the surface.

And then, last week, word came out that Beagle had possibly been found – not in twinkly pieces scattered across Mars, but intact…

Wow…

And it was true. At a big press conference on Friday the HiRISE pictures were shown to the world, and yep, there was Beagle 2, sitting on the surface, its parachute and backshell nearby too. There had been no case-shattering impact on Mars. Beagle had made it through the atmosphere as planned… its backshell had fallen away as planned… the parachute had detached as planned… and it had landed on the surface. But then, apparently, it hadn’t followed the plan. Some of its “petals” didn’t open, only a couple of them did, which meant it didn’t have the power to phone Earth and begin its scientific mission.

Beagle landed on Mars only for the last stage of its arrival to go wrong. Having done all the really hard stuff, having survived its fiery plunge through the thin martian air and its shuddering bouncing onto and across the surface, it just didn’t open up properly.

Which means that a healthy, beautiful, shining, gold and silver space-probe was sitting on Mars in one piece on Christmas Day as I was sat there on my mum’s stairs.

Damnit… 😦

We’ll never know how differently history would have been written had Beagle 2 opened up fully and commenced operations on Mars. It might have found life there, or it might not have. We’ll never know. But what we do know is that, against all the odds, a British space-probe landed on Mars, and although the rest of the mission didn’t go ahead the Beagle 2 mission still inspired many, many people, and continues to to this day. In many ways, as they said at the presser on Friday, Beagle was success.

And that’s not just me being “typically British” and trying to paint a failure as a success, not at all, I’m not that starry-eyed, believe me. But we now know, for a fact, that Beagle 2 LANDED ON MARS, and that by itself is an amazing thing. I’m delighted for the Beagle team, and delighted for British science too, because can now say that we are one of the few countries to have landed a spacecraft on Mars, our name added to a very short and select list.

It’s just a shame that Colin Pilinger didn’t live to see the HiRISE images. I’m sure he would have been thrilled at the press conference on Friday. Not American-thrilled; he wouldn’t have leapt off his chair, punching the air and whooping. Rather I think he would have looked at the images spread out in his desk, smiled wryly, looked up at the watching press pack and, as the camera flashes exploded, nodded slowly in quiet approval, like the farmer at the end of “Babe” when he congratulates the piglet for rounding up the sheep.

Beagle 2’s story will now probably capture the imagination of the world again. It came so close to success, so close! I imagine there are word processors clacking away in Hollywood right now as people write film scripts. Good luck to them, because that story is a very complicated one, with towering highs and godawful lows. It has everything… a heroic, unconventional scientist fighting the establishment, and his peers, and winning, with the support of other outsiders, among them an “eccentric” artist and a broody pop star. I hope the film, when it’s made, tells the whole story, and includes how ESA carried Beagle to Mars without any enthusiasm, and have never given it any thought since it was lost. I hope it tells the tale of how Beagle 2 had many supporters and champions, but many critics and enemies too. When it comes out, and it will, I hope the film makes the mission’s supporters and champions smile proudly. And I hope that sitting there, in the darkened cinema, the critics and enemies feel guilty for what they said at the time, and for how they turned on one of British science’s most ambitious and dedicated scientists.

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How to find Comet Lovejoy this weekend

It looks like this coming weekend is going to be THE best time for UK skywatchers to look for Comet Lovejoy. Just as the comet is at its closest to us, and showing off its tail to us at at the best angle, a cold spell is about to begin, and clear, frosty skies are forecast for most of the UK for the next few nights, and with no Moon in the way to drown out the comet, so all those things considered this really could be the best chance we get to see it.

Ok, so what will you need to find and enjoy Comet Lovejoy over the next few nights?

First of all, as is the case with trying to look at anything in the night sky, if it’s at all possible you want to be somewhere away from streetlights and tall buildings, because both will block your view of the sky and of the comet. If you try and look for the comet from somewhere with lots of artificial lights then you’re really going to struggle, your sky will be so bright. And of course those tall buildings could physically hide the comet. So, if you possibly can, get to somewhere with a “big” sky – or at least a good view of the southern sky – and away from those pesky lights. Out of town, into the countryside is best – find a quiet lay-by, or a farm gateway – but if you’re unable to do that then try to get to a park or a school playing field. You’ll be amazed by the difference.

Secondly, I strongly – STRONGLY – advise you to have a pair of binoculars handy this weekend, because although the comet is now visible to the naked eye through binoculars it will look brighter, bigger and clearer. Its subtle green colour will be enhanced through binoculars too, and you’ll be able to see its faint tail. So seriously, if you go out comet hunting take some binoculars with you. You’ve probably got a pair stuck in a box in the garage or loft, or under the stairs anyway, so use them! And if you don’t have a pair of your own, borrow some.

Finally, wrap up warm – coat, hat, scarf, the works! It’s going to be perishing cold tonight, and you’re going to be out in the open for a while, not moving about much, so dress appropriately.

To recap, this should be you when you go comet-hunting over the coming weekend…

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Ok, that’s where you want to be, what you will need to have with you, and how to dress … where will the actual comet be in the sky?

Right, first of all, don’t worry about finding the comet – it’s going to be easy! No, it is, trust me on this. Often comets are hard to find, because they’re very faint and lurking in unremarkable areas of the sky. But Lovejoy is a naked eye object, and it is in an area of the sky that is almost ridiculously easy to find – close, in fact, to one of the most famous groups of stars in the sky! And because there’s no Moon you will be able to see the comet in all its glory. 🙂

So, let’s get started. First of all you need to be looking for a pattern of stars called “ORION”. If you have ANY interest in the night sky at all you will already have seen Orion because it has a very distinctive shape – it looks like an hourglass – and has a very distinctive line of three stars at its centre, known famously as “Orion’s Belt”. Orion is the key to finding Comet Lovejoy, not just this weekend but for the forseeable future, so once you’ve found it that’s most of the hard work done.  The most obvious thing in the sky in that direction (apart from the Moon!) is a short line of three blue stars, all about the same brightness. This is actually a very famous feature in the sky – “Orion’s Belt”, and it forms part of, surprisingly, the constellation of Orion. Once you’ve found Orion’s Belt you’re halfway to finding the Comet!

To find Orion, just look towards the south east at around 6pm – and there it will be, right in front of you!

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If you can’t find that right away – and if you’re an absolute beginner that might be the case, so don’t worry! – you can find Orion by finding the Big Dipper and looking to its right, like this…

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Found it? Ok, let’s put some lines and labels on that part of the sky so it makes more sense…

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Ok, having found Orion you’re going to go “star hopping” – that means you’re going to move up from Orion, hopping between a couple of other celestial objects, until you’re in the area of sky where the comet can be found.

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Having found Orion, continue the line of the Belt UP and to the RIGHT until you come to a “v” pattern of stars lying on its side, making it look like the point of a spear. This is a famous star cluster called “The Hyades”, and when you have more time you should explore it through your binoculars because it’s really pretty! But this time, KEEP GOING UP until you come to another cluster of stars, smaller and more compact this time. This is one of the most famous star clusters in the sky – “The Pleiades”, or “The Seven Sisters”. Once you’ve found this star cluster you WILL find Comet Lovejoy, I promise you.

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If you’ve got this far you’re almost there, because Comet Lovejoy is very close to the Pleiades.

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…and here’s where it will be! Having found the Pleiades, just look to the cluster’s right and you’ll be in the right area! You should see the comet as a small grey-green smudge, looking a lot like an out of focus star. If you can’t pick it out with just your eyes, lift those binoculars up and scan that area of the sky with them until you see the comet. It will look like a round smudge, more grey than green, like a small round hazy patch. Use this zoomed in chart to show you where to look on different nights…

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But don’t expect to see a bright head and a beautiful tail trailing away from it – through your binoculars it will look like a big, roundish, greyish smudge in the pale blue sky, like a smeared, out of focus star, not at all like anything you will have seen on the internet, which is now groaning under the weight of stunning portraits of Lovejoy taken by experienced astronomy photographers, using mega-expensive cameras attached to their mega-expensive telescopes. If you see a smudge don’t be disappointed, congratulate yourself – you’ve found Comet Lovejoy!

And that’s it, really! Good luck looking for Lovejoy over the next few nights, it will be our best chance for a long time, I think. Of course, if you have a small telescope you should be looking a the comet through that too, not just binoculars. And if you want to try photographing the comet there are guides to how to do that here on this blog, just scroll down a few posts until you find one.

I hope you find the comet over the weekend – drop me a line if you do, it’s always nice to know if people find these posts useful! 🙂