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Comet Tales…


I have a little spare time in which to catch-up on my blogs, so I thought I’d take a look at two rather different Comet Tales…

Recently I’ve been following two comets very closely – Comet 67P, the bewilderingly-shaped target of ESA’s ROSETTA mission (above, left), and Comet Lovejoy (above right), which has been drifting through my sky since the end of last year. I’ve been checking-in on 67P every day for months now too, since ROSETTA arrived at the comet in that blaze of publicity last August, followed by the Philae probe’s dramatic “landing” not long after. Thanks to the continuing hard work, generosity of spirit and sheer joy in science of the ESA ROSETTA mission’s NAVCAM and Outreach teams, since the probe arrived at 67P we have all been able to to essentially fly alongside it as it has studied and explored the comet, with new NAVCAM images being released almost daily. And yesterday we had a rare image release from the other ROSETTA camera team, the OSIRIS team which is responsible for the probe’s highest resolution cameras, which have been taking breathtakingly-detailed zoomed-in images of features on the comet’s surface. This new OSIRIS image actually shows an outburst from a jet on the comet!



Isn’t that BRILLIANT?????!!! Since last August the comet has been revealed by the NAVCAM images to be a stunning object, a mini world of boulders, towering cliffs and gaping craters, with each day’s new images showing plumes, jets and geysers of gas and dust shooting out of the nucleus. That fantastic OSIRIS image actually shows the birth of such a jet, something never seen before. There’s a lot more information about the image, and when and how it was taken, here…


And you see, this is why I am so frustrated with the OSIRIS team! That’s a gorgeous image, a real WOW!! I wish they would release more of their pictures, I really do, it’s such a shame and such a waste. Contrary to what some people think, I don’t want to be writing all this negative stuff, I don’t enjoy it. I want to be celebrating ESA’s and OSIRIS’ achievements here, shouting from the rooftops, proud of how amazing the pictures are! I want to be showing the kids I talk to in schools, and the retired people I talk to at U3A meetings, and the members of Womens Institutes I talk to in small village halls the glorious images taken by OSIRIS, banging the drum for them, for ROSETTA and for ESA itself… but I can’t. I’ve emailed the team about this, and even the DG of ESA himself, but keep getting fobbed-off with the same old stuff about “contracts” and “negotiated agreements” and “terms” etc, but there’s just no movement, even when I point out that Outreachers like myself, and professional science journalists, could be doing so much good with images like that… But the OSIRIS team just won’t let us see what they’re seeing, damnit

Oh well, at the end of the day that’s up to them. They’re their images, they worked hard to get them, over many years, and under the terms of their ESA contract they are perfectly entitled to keep their pictures to themselves. The rest of the world will just have to wait until the team decides to share the pictures they’ve been enjoying in private all these months. Until then, sincere and heartfelt congratulations to the OSIRIS team for their fantastic image, and let’s hope that, having seen all the excitement and interest that image caused, someone inside ESA, somewhere, has a quiet word with the OSIRIS team and asks them to lighten up and share the wonder of 67P with the rest of us.

And let’s all hope that when ExoMars lands on the Red Planet, the images it takes are shared more freely…

In the meantime, here are a couple of the most gorgeous recent NAVCAM pics for you to enjoy…

Comet_on_15_April_2015_NavCam Comet_on_15_April_2015_b_NavCam

ESA/Rosetta/NavCam – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0

So, thanks to ROSETTA we can enjoy seeing a comet close-up. Meanwhile, for the past five months or so, amateur astronomers like myself have been enjoying watching another comet, but from a rather greater distance.

I had my first sighting – and got my first photo – of Comet Lovejoy 2014 Q2 way back in December, on Boxing Day actually, when it was a barely-there out of focus star ridiculously low in the sky, beneath Orion. Almost drowned out by the light pollution above Kendal it showed as just a tiny, tiny smudgy… thing… on my photo, but it was there, definitely there, and I was SO chuffed when I saw it on the back of my camera! It’s circled on the image below, but you’ll have to click on it to enlarge it…

1st pic enh circle

As the weeks and months passed I followed Lovejoy as it sailed across the northern sky, curving and climbing up from beneath Orion, heading for and then passing the Pleiades before slicing through the W of Cassiopeia. It was an easy naked eye object (from a dark sky location) for a while, and although it has faded beneath naked eye brightness now and will soon be a telescopic object…


Dec 28th


Jan 12th

LJ Jan 13 4 b

Jan 13th


Jan 16th

best 1

Jan 18th


Feb 3rd


Feb 26th

LJ1 135mm crop 2

March 28th


April 15th

lj1 300mm single crop

April 19th

… … …

When Lovejoy eventually drops out of sight it will leave me, and many sky-watchers around the world, with many happy memories. And after that? Well, we know of a few comets due to be visible in the northern sky later this year, though none are going to be bright enough to see with the naked eye. In the southern hemisphere, a comet is slowly climbing towards naked eye visibility as I write this. But it will probably not reach Lovejoy’s brightness.

What we need is another Hale-Bopp, or Hyakutake, or West, to light up the sky and get everyone – astronomer and non-astronomer alike – gazing up in wonder. Statistically, one is on its way, that’s for sure. It’s out there, right now, waiting to be discovered, waiting for someone – an amateur staring into the eyepiece of a saved-up-for telescope, set up in their back garden, or a scientist sat at a desk, staring at a screen, studying images taken by an automated survey telescope – to find it. When that faraway, hazy smudge’s orbit is calculated the numbers will tell us that it could… could… become a bright naked eye object in the sky, with a fine tail stretching many degrees across the heavens, and excitement and anticipation will begin to rise. Then, if all goes well, we will be able to look up a the sky and see one of Nature’s most thrilling sights – a bright, naked eye comet painted on the starry night, its tail looking like the beam from a searchlight…

When will that comet be found? We can have no idea. It might have been found already, and as you read this a press release might be being prepared somewhere, ready to be posted online, thus beginning another giddying, breathless ISON-esque countdown.. or it might not happen for months yet, or even for many years. But it WiLL come, and then we will see what happens. I can’t wait!

But before then, ROSETTA will continue to monitor, study and photograph 67P, and when it screams around the Sun who knows what will happen… It might swoop around it safely and emerge on the other side whole, or it break into two pieces, or into many pieces, we just don’t know. Again, we’ll have to wait and see.

I can’t wait to find out…!