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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!


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!


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…


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…


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.


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…


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…


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…


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.


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…


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. 🙂