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Thank you, ROSETTA NAVCAM Team…

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By the time the European Space Agency probe ROSETTA arrived at Comet 67P last August the world was already excited about the mission to the point of bursting. A fantastic Outreach and media campaign – involving competitions, cute animations, sci-fi short films and countless user-friendly shiny websites and blogs – meant that as the probe closed-in on its icy prey millions of people around the world were already desperate to see the images the probe would take.

Most of the excitement was due to the well-publicised capabilities of the probe’s OSIRIS cameras, high resolution instruments which would take and send back the clearest, sharpest, most detailed views ever taken of a comet. As ROSETTA closed in on 67P millions of people around the world were waiting eagerly to see the images OSIRIS would take – the stunning close-ups of the comet’s craters, vents, pits, crumbling cliffs, and more we had been promised as ROSETTA sped towards its target.

No-one was expecting to see all the images as they came in, as happens with NASA’s Mars rovers, because that’s just not how ESA works; mission scientists have exclusive rights to their instruments’ images and data before releasing them to the public, giving them time to use them for research and study. And that’s only fair, as no-one in their right mind would begrudge them that opportunity after they’ve worked so hard for so long, and given up so much, to get their precious data. But it was understood that some OSIRIS images would be released regularly, and we were all very much looking forward to that…

Oh, and the probe’s own navigation camera – or NAVCAM – would be taking pictures too. But with lower resolution than the OSIRIS cameras, and a wider field of view, they weren’t expected to be anywhere near as exciting, and would really just be used by the science teams and engineers and controllers to steer ROSETTA around the nucleus safely. OSIRIS would provide the wonder and the spectacle, the shock and awe the media and the public were expecting in the 21st century…

It hasn’t quite worked out like that.

For reasons described elsewhere on this blog, on many previous occasions, only a handful of OSIRIS images has been released since ROSETTA arrived at 67P. In fact, so few have been shared with the world that you could be forgiven for forgetting that the OSIRIS cameras actually made it onboard ROSETTA. So few and far between have the image releases by the OSIRIS team been that some have openly wondered if there was a problem with the camera that they weren’t telling us about. But no, there’s no problem. Not with the camera, anyway. The problem is that, fir various reasons, the OSIRIS team just doesn’t want to share its images with the rest of us. Not now, anyway.

One day they will have to, of course, they’ll have no choice. One day they will have to let the rest of us see what they have been seeing in private behind their closed doors all these months. I look forward to that day. I look forward to it very much.

Thankfully, the team behind the NAVCAM camera has a rather different attitude to image release. Like the teams behind the Mars rovers, they “get it” that there is a real hunger out here to see the images being taken by hugely expensive space missions like ROSETTA, and so they have been releasing images almost daily, supported magnificently by the mission’s hard-working outreach and media teams.

So, while the long-awaited OSIRIS images remain hidden on hard drives, only enjoyed by the OSIRIS team itself (and, bizarrely, fellow scientists and a few privileged members of the public whenever they choose to show them at science conferences and events), NAVCAM images are released almost daily. And that’s good, because if those NAVCAM images weren‘t being released no-one would know ROSETTA was still even studying the comet.

But not only has the NAVCAM team released its images, it’s actively encouraged members of the public to download them and play with them, to create panoramas, mosaics, 3D views and even animations!

And so, without meaning to, I’m sure, the NAVCAM images have come to BE the ROSETTA mission to the public and the media.

In fact, the NAVCAM team has gone far above and beyond the call of duty by releasing not just hundreds but *thousands* of their images, in several huge batches. Last week they released their third such batch, more than 1,700 new pictures, and anyone and everyone is able to see them just by going to a special webpage where they are all accessible with just a few clicks of a mouse or taps on a screen. No special software is needed to view or download the images, they’re just there, for anyone and everyone to trawl through, download and look at/play with…

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…and that’s exactly what I’ve been doing since the most recent batch was released late last week. It’s been great fun to scroll through all the pages devouring the images, spotting familiar ones – and see some spectacular new ones which haven’t been featured on websites, blogs or in magazines.

And boy, there are some breathtaking new views in there!

So, over the past few days I’ve been working on some of those, cropping, sharpening and enhancing them with various image processing programs and websites, the same ones I use when working with images returned by the Mars rovers. I don’t do this for any noble, scientific reason. I’m not trying to discover anything, or reveal hidden details, or anything like that. I don’t try to balance levels, and curves, and tones to create something visually accurate or scientifically useful. All I try to do is make something which at least looks attractive and hopefully looks stunning, or better, and which others might enjoy.

Here, then, are some views of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, created from images posted on the NAVCAM Image Browser. I hope you like them – or some of them. Please click on them to enlarge them.

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Thank you for taking the time to look at my pictures – and thank you, NAVCAM team, for sharing the success of ROSETTA, and the beauty of 67P, with us.

CERES Revealed…

As I was growing up – a space-mad kid, hiding away in my schools’ libraries, devouring every astronomy book on their shelves when I should have been outside kicking a ball around with the others – Ceres was just an asteroid, a big chunk of rock orbiting the Sun, way, waay out there. In those days – yes, I know, cue the Hovis music! – a generation before the birth of the Internet, when the cutting edge of computer technology was a Sinclair ZX81 with a wobbly 1K RAM pack, when Wagon Wheels really were the size of a wagon’s wheel and school breaks were spent reading the latest issue of 2000AD while chewing on a Uranium-hard Texan Bar or crunching a delicious packet of chutney-flavoured Space Invader crisps, we didn’t know much about asteroids, just that there were lots of them “out there”, most contained in a belt or band between Mars and Jupiter.  illustrations of the asteroid belt were very basic and looked like this…

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And although we hadn’t yet seen an asteroid close up – that would not happen for many years – we kind of knew what they would look like, and they were a regular sight in science fiction films. Unfortunately most of those films wrongly gave the impression that the asteroid belt was so crowded with asteroids that flying through it would mean ducking, dodging and weaving through a chaotic mass of tumbling rocks…

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…and a hugely popular video game of the time – which I spent many happy hours playing at Pontins holiday camps during rain-soaked holidays – continued to show that…

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Now, of course, we know exactly what asteroids look like because we’ve sent space probes to or past many of them. And we know, too, that the asteroid belt, while densely populated, would pose no problems for a Jupiter-bound spaceship because the asteroids in it are so very far apart that if you were passing one even its very nearest neighbour would be so far away it would look just like a star in the sky. But still asteroids fascinate us and call out to us, Siren-like, from the cold, dark depths if the solar system.

When I was growing up, Ceres was, like Vesta, just a name in a book or a magazine – a large asteroid “out there”. I didn’t even see for the first time it until half a dozen years ago, by which time it had been reclassified as a “dwarf planet”. When I finally saw it through binoculars it wasn’t striking, just a “star” surrounded by many others, and I didn’t (knowingly) take my first photo of it until early last year, when Ceres and Vesta were, by a happy coincidence, both in the same part of the sky and I finally had a camera good enough to capture them…

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My, how things have changed…

As you read this, having already imaged and studied and mapped Vesta, NASA’s DAWN probe is taking photos of Ceres, turning yet another of those anonymous points of light in the sky into a real world. The latest images released by NASA reveal Ceres to be a cratered, blasted world, spattered with mysterious “bright spots” and raked by cracks, valleys and trenches, like some of the moons orbiting the worlds in the outer solar system. Media attention is being focussed on these two particular bright spots which lie inside a huge crater,…

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Speculation about their nature is rife – are they patches of bright ice beneath the surface, exposed by meteorite impacts? Are they plumes of gas coming out of vents in the crust? Are they ice volcanoes? No-one knows yet, but reading on Twitter and Facebook it seems many people are now leaning towards the icy deposits explanation. We’ll know more in the days and weeks to come. In the meantime, many thanks go to one of my favourite space artists, Ron Miller, for giving me permission to use this painting he has done showing what the “Bright spots” might look like up close…

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Yesterday NASA released a new animation showing Ceres rotating, and it’s a beauty.

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(If the animation doesn’t play in your browser automatically, just click on the image, that should do it…)

You can see a higher resolution version of the animation here…

http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA19547

Watching that animation you really get a sense of a world rotating before your eyes. But it goes very quickly, and there’s not much contrast, making surface details quite hard to see. So, ever-inquisitive, I took the animation apart and enhanced some of the individual frames to bring out features on the surface, and the results are fascinating…

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Look at that… two very distinct bright areas on the surface of Ceres which look very much like fresh craters to me. A closer look…

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Another view…

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Ah, the original “bright spots”… let’s take a closer look…

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…and as you can see there are more than just a pair of bright features in there, there’s a veritable bright spot party going on inside that crater! Can’t wait to see them in real detail later in the mission.

Another view of Ceres, which I’ve really stretched to bring out detail and features. Note: it should be remembered that enhancing like this – sharpening, changing levels etc – can often introduce imaging artefacts, i.e things which aren’t really there, so please bear in mind that this is just done to bring out general detail, but mainly to produce aesthetically-pleasing and intriguing images, ok?

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Ahhhh, now you can see, quite clearly, that the surface of Ceres is raked and scratched and etched with valley- and trench-like features. That’s extremely interesting! Again, we look forward to high resolution views of those!

And then there’s this…

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…which shows a whole trail of “bright spot” across the surface…

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Something else caught my eye too – a feature which can be seen on the limb of Ceres on some images, which looks very much like a mountain or, some are suggesting, a volcano..?

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…and finally, I made this image of Ceres purely to look pretty so please, no-one take it too seriously, ok?

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Yes, we’ve come a long way since I Han Solo flew the Millennium Falcon through that asteroid belt and almost got eaten by a snapping space slug…

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Over the coming days and weeks we’ll see Ceres in more and more detail. Who knows what amazing discoveries lie ahead?

I can’t wait to find out!

A whirlwind of a week!

Wow… the past seven days or so have been *crazy* for anyone interested in space exploration and astronomy! Keeping up with it all has been like trying to hold onto your umbrella in the middle of a hurricane, and as the weekend approaches it’ll be good to brew a cuppa, dunk a few chocolate digestives and take a while to relax and let it all sink in.

Actually, I can’t remember a previous week when so much has happened “out there”, when so many different stories have been competing for the headlines. News has come in from Mars, the asteroid belt, Pluto, and elsewhere. So, time for a quick recap I think…

The most dramatic and “WOW!!! LOOK AT THAT!!!” story must have been the latest images from the New Horizons probe, which is currently rushing towards Pluto, in advance of its historic fly-by in mid-July. Until now New Horizons’ images, as exciting as they are, haven’t been as good as the best images taken by Hubble, and that line wasn’t expected to be crossed for another month or so. But last week the NH team released a flurry of new images, and the best – the ones they’ve worked on and tidied up – actually show hints of surface features on the planet, including something many people think might…possibly… perhaps… be an ice cap!

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This is a truly remarkable thing, and it had space enthusiasts’ eyes popping out of our heads when the images were released. And although NH’s latest images maybe still aren’t as clear or as detailed as Hubble’s best, the fact that they are already showing some features on the dwarf planet’s surface is hugely exciting and encouraging for the days, weeks and months ahead: the images taken now will get better and better, and I reckon that by this time next month we should be seeing Pluto as a real world, really starting to make sense of it. Come July, when NH whips past Pluto, what will we see? Craters? Probably, almost certainly. Mountains and peaks? Possibly. A polar cap? Well, looking at these latest images, you have to say maybe. What about activity of some sort? Well, we’ll see, but some think that’s a possibility. And pulling all we know together, more and more commentators seem to be agreeing that Pluto might look a lot like Triton, Neptune’s moon. We’ll just have to wait and see.

…and thankfully, we WILL be able to see, because the NH team – following in the footsteps of the NASA MER, MSL, CASSINI teams, and others – has announced that they will be sharing their raw images online just a couple of days after they are taken!

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This is fantastic news, because it means the media and the public alike will be able to join in the excitement of New Horizon’s historic encounter with Pluto; with just a short delay between images being taken and images being released, we will all be able to fly alongside NH as it approaches and then whoops past Pluto. Thank you, NH team!!

Along the same lines, this past week the wonderful, wonderful team operating the NAVCAM camera onboard ESA’s ROSETTA mission released into the wild their *second* complete batch of raw images! Planetary Society blogger extraordinaire Emily Lakdawalla combined all the images into one striking montage…

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So, if you want you just browse those images at your leisure, tracking down and then drooling over dozens if not hundreds of lovely photos of Comet 67P not seen before! And again, at the risk of repeating myself, thank you to the NAVCAM team for working so hard to ensure the ROSETTA mission is kept in the media and public spotlight with its enthusiastic and effective Outreach work. Seriously, if it wasn’t for them many – most? – people wouldn’t know the ROSETTA mission was still ongoing, as the OSIRIS camera team disappointingly and frustratingly continues to keep its spectacular images to itself.

I’ll come back to that issue later.

Meanwhile, on Mars, we have not one but two rovers exploring on our behalf. The Mars Exploration Rover “Opportunity” has now been roving Mars for over eleven years, has driven more than 42km across its rugged, rusted surface, and is about to drive down into a steep-walled valley which offers some spectacular science returns. On the other side of Barsoom the Mars Science Laboratory “Curiosity” is now starting to drive through some genuinely jaw-droppingly stunning scenery. Both these rovers are sending back beautiful photographs…

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The image above shows “Lindbergh”, a pile of rocks at the centre of a crater called “Spirit of St Louis” at the entrance to Marathon Valley. Opportunity is going to be here a few more days, I think, before she trundles towards the valley mouth and gets down to some serious science.

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The above image – which is a colourised mosaic I made out of several raw MSL images – shows Curiosity’s view as she slowly but surely works her way towards the base of Mt Sharp, in the centre of Gale Crater. Isn’t that beautiful? You really can imagine standing there, can’t you?

Yes, it’s been a week of wonders for sure.

It was a week in which the DAWN probe’s team released a beautiful new image of the dwarf planet Ceres, which – to the surprise of many – show Ceres looking remarkably like Mercury, or even Earth’s Moon…

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Of course, we’re all really waiting for good close up images of those mysterious “White Spots” so we can see what they actually are – the frozen summits of ice volcanoes? Plumes of gas from geysers? Splashes of subsurface ice revealed by asteroid impacts? Can’t wait to find out, and we should do soon…

And then, although it is somewhat out of the spotlight now, the CASSINI probe is still orbiting Saturn and returning glorious images of the planet’s rings and moons. This one was released in the past week…

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And then, just a couple of days ago, NASA’s MESSENGER probe completed its historic mission in dramatic fashion, by crashing into the planet it has been studying all these years. During its mission it took many thousands of wonderful images, showing the planet’s craters, scarps and ridges in incredible detail. This is the very last image it sent back to Earth before slamming into the surface…

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And not only were we shown that image soon after it was taken, but we were all able to follow MESSENGER’s death dive in real-time, on Twitter.

We take this kind of thing for granted now. We are, basically, spoiled rotten. We can go online with just a click of a mouse or a tap of a finger and see, on the screens of our PCs, tablets or phones, images taken of fantastic places “out there” – distant, exotic moons, planets, comets, asteroids – sometimes just hours after they were taken. This is a revolution that is truly astonishing, and we should never forget how incredibly lucky we are to be part of it. We should never take it for granted. When I was growing up, a space mad teenager in a small Cumbrian town, things were so different. For example, when Voyager 2 sped past Uranus in 1986, just a few days before the Challenger Disaster, it made the TV news and the newspaper headlines, but only a bare handful if images were available at the time for people like me to drool over. I couldn’t just go online and do a Google image search for new images of Uranus or Miranda; I couldn’t just go to Emily Lakdawalla’s excellent blog, or the SEN news site, or Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog, and see images there in all their glory. I had to wait. And wait. And wait. Eventually, months later, more images appeared in the pages of the monthly astronomy magazines, and the BBC showed a “Horizon Special” all about the encounter.

I was an active Outreacher even then, so of course I wanted to share the Voyager 2 images with the people I talked to. Today it’s easy to do that. If I am giving an Outreach talk tomorrow, maybe in a school, or a Lottery funded modern community centre, or an ageing, drafty village hall, all I have to do is go to a space mission’s website today, download the latest images and then put them into a Powerpoint, ready for showing through my laptop and projector on the night. But back in the Voyager days I had to buy a new VHS video tape and after eventually getting the wrapping off thunk it into my VHS video recorder and tape the aforementioned episode of HORIZON. Later, with the Voyager images of Uranus’ bland disc and Miranda’s bizarre chevrons frozen on the screen with the Pause button – which in itself took dozens of attempts before I managed to get a screen without a big black band across it! –  I would *photograph the screen* with my Practika SLR camera, on a tripod, loaded with slide film. I then had to send the film off for processing, which took another week, and then, hopefully, SOME of the slides I’d taken off the screen would be good enough to use in my Outreach talks. Today I am often adding new images to my talks just HOURS before I give them. It’s brilliant!

So, please, let’s not take for granted this torrent of images and information we are drenched by every day. It’s a wonderful thing. We are very lucky.

And we are lucky that the scientists involved in the missions we follow now release their images and information so freely. It wasn’t always the case. It’s only really happened since the Mars Exploration Rovers landed on the Red Planet and the team behind them gave the go ahead for their raw images to be posted daily, for everyone to see and enjoy. Now this is a common way of doing things, and many space missions generously share their images with the public as soon as or at least soon after they are taken, for which we should all be very, very grateful.

Which brings me back, sadly, to the OSIRIS team on ESA’s ROSETTA mission. And I know I might sound a bit obsessed about this to some, and that some people think I’m taking this way, way too seriously, but I don’t agree. I genuinely think that the OSIRIS team are behaving selfishly by not sharing their images more freely. I accept totally their right to work with their images, to use them for writing papers for scientific journals etc before releasing them, but I simply cannot and WILL not believe that they have to hold back every image they are taking, that is simply ridiculous. They must, they MUST have some images which they can release without risking any science or anyone’s career. Some of their images must be scientifically pretty irrelevent but look amazing, surely? They could release those images without any risk at all. They aren’t because they simply don’t want to. And in 2015 that is selfish, and wrong.

And if you disagree, I ask you to look at this image I made.

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During the past whirlwind of a week, all those images – and many more – were released by the teams behind very important, history-making space missions. Scientists involved in the exploration of Mars, Saturn, Ceres, Mercury and Pluto – all of whom face the same career pressures as the OSIRIS scientists, all of whom further their careers by preparing and publishing serious scientific papers in the same journals as the OSIRIS scientists – released images their probes had taken because it’s now seen as the right thing to do. They “get it” that the public and the media are fascinated by the exploration of space, and are hungry to see – and are entitled to see – the latest images taken by the hugely expensive machines sent out from Earth to explore on Mankind’s behalf. And yet the OSIRIS team continues to keep its images to itself. I just can’t get my head around that, I honestly can’t, not when so many other space mission scientists seem willing to release their images so freely.

What makes the reluctance of the OSIRIS team to release its images so frustrating and infuriating is that the ROSETTA mission’s NAVCAM team is releasing beautiful images regularly. Not every image – it would be crazy and stupid to expect any mission team to do that! – but regularly, at least one daily. And they have just flung open the doors of their archives and released over 1000 images to the public! Over a THOUSAND! Or, to put it another way…

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Those aren’t even all the Navcam images released to the Archive, just the ones which show the shape of 67P. They were compiled by Emily Lakdawalla, blogger extraordinaire from The Planetary Society. And over on the right, the OSIRIS releases to the Archive. I think that shows quite starkly the difference in attitudes.

I do not have a personal vendetta against the OSIRIS team, I want to make that clear. I respect them and their achievements greatly. I know that they sweated blood and tears to get to the comet and take their images. But I am  baffled, disappointed and frustrated by the OSIRIS team’s refusal to enter the 21st century, especially when ESA has made such great progress in recent years. ESA used to be infamously selfish, notorious in the space community for hording its images and basically being appalling at public Outreach. That has changed, and with its animations, short films, colourful web pages and regular navcam image releases the ROSETTA mission has shone supernova bright as an example of how to do fantastic Outreach. But the OSIRIS team refuses to join in. They say that they cannot release their images because that would jeapordise their hard-won science. Well, I’m sorry, but this past week, with the release of images of Mercury, Saturn, Ceres, Mars and Pluto shows that’s simply Not True. If other scientists on other missions feel able to release their images so freely, then there’s absolutely no reason why the OSIRIS team can’t. They should just be honest and say that they just don’t want to.

And that is a great shame.

I hope that as Dawn starts to send back ever sharper images of Ceres, and as New Horizons begins to reveal surface features on Pluto, and the ROSETTA NAVCAM shows Comet 67P bursting into activity, the OSIRIS team reconsiders its outdated position. I hope they stop skulking in their room, throw on a clean shirt, grab a bottle and come and join the party everyone else is enjoying across the street. 🙂