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The End is Nigh…

Today’s a very important day for everyone interested in space exploration, as the Rosetta Mission comes to an end… actually, it doesn’t, not really. True, the ROSETTA spacecraft will “land” on the comet and be switched off, ending the flown part of the mission, but in a sense the mission will continue for years, probably decades, as scientists use the enormous amount of data collected by the orbiter and lander to make new discoveries and learn more about comets and our solar system. So, although it will be sad when we hear that ROSETTA has fallen silent – and if we feel sad just try and imagine how gutted the people who have spent so many years working ON the mission will feel – and well all miss our daily updates from Comet 67P, let’s celebrate the mission’s incredible achievements so far, rejoice in the way the mission’s fantastic Outreach team has inspired so many people – not just scientists, but musicians, poets and writers, young and old, across the whole world – and look forward to the fantastic discoveries which will follow in the years to come.
But the end is nigh for ROSETTA. It has taken its final NAVCAM images, and the final set of commands has been sent to it from Earth. There’s no going back, In a few hours, after studying it for so long, just like PHILAE, ROSETTA will become a part *of* Comet 67P, never to be see again – at least not until another spacecraft visits the comet in some far future year and photographs it lying there on the surface. But the comet will continue to whirl around the Sun, and in the future, when it’s visible in the sky, we’ll all look at it, through our own telescope eyepieces or on the screens of our laptops, tablets and phones, and remember how ROSETTA changed our view of comets forever. And send it a heartfelt “thank you”.🙂

The Sky At Night Magazine Planisphere


The new issue of The Sky At Night magazine comes with a free planisphere, shown above being checked-out by Peggy (who regular readers will be aware is always the first to any astro books or equipment that comes through my door)  and it’s really nice.


As you can see, it’s not as big as the largest most popular Philip’s planisphere, but it’s larger than the smallest, and still easy to read. Its “star disc” is detailed, crowded with all the bright stars and their constellations labelled, as well as the best-known asterisms and deep sky objects – but it avoids being too crowded. It’s well made too, light and colourful but not garish.


They’ve done a great job, so congratulations to Pete Lawrence for putting it together.

But is there any use for a planisphere – which doesn’t even show the positions of the Moon and planets – in this digital age, when you can tour the night sky in all its glory with Stellarium on your laptop and zoom in on the wonders of the night sky with just a pinch of your fingers, using one of the countless astronomy apps available for your phone or tablet?


I think so, yes, because a) they’re just fun to use, b) they’re easy to slip into an observing bag, c) they won’t run out of power just when you need them, and d) they really do help you learn the whole sky, by seeing how everything “fits together”.

So it might be thought of by some as doing astronomy “the old fashioned way” but personally I think that’s a good thing. As much as I love all my digital gear, and recommend astro apps to beginners who come to my talks, there’s still joy for the absolute beginner to be had from simply standing in a field with a planisphere and a torch and spotting stars and their constellations by turning that plastic disc, lining up the date and time, looking at the window and having a light-bulb come on above your head with a DING! as, for the first time, you match some of the little dots on the planisphere with some of the twinkly dots in the actual sky… and in that magical only-happens-once moment your life changes, and just as surely as if you’d stepped through that wardrobe door into Narnia a new world opens up for you.

I’ll definitely be recommending this planisphere to beginners while this issue of the mag is available. So, go get one: They’ll fly off the shelves, I’m sure!

Golden rock…

Another beautiful martian view, courtesy of Mars Science Laboratory… (click to enlarge)


Panorama stitched and processed by Stuart Atkinson, using original images Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Malin Space Science Systems

Philae found -just in time for Rosetta’s finale

There can be no doubt that the European Space Agency ROSETTA mission, to study Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko (or “CG” as I’m going to call it from now on because I am not typing that out every time, sorry!), has been an astounding success. Since arriving at the comet on August 6th 2014 it has revolutionised our understanding of what comets are, how they behave and, of course, what they look like. It has sent back tens of thousands of stunningly detailed images, most of which (after a very shaky and controversial start by the OSIRIS team) have now been released for everyone to admire and study and drool over, and the many instruments on the orbiter have told us what the comet is made of and how it “works”. Thanks to ROSETTA we will never look at comets in the same way again. And no matter how many missions fly to comets in the future, ROSETTA’s place in history is assured: it was the first probe to rendezvous with a comet and study it as it rounded the Sun.

But the end is nigh. After more than two years studying Comet CG, ROSETTA’s historic mission will end on September 30th when the orbiter descends to the comet’s surface, either “landing” or “crashing”, depending on which way you want to look at it. As the dust settles on the surface of 67P, covering whatever’s left of the probe after impact, and the mission controllers confirm the final loss of signal, I’m sure the army of scientists who have worked on the mission all these years, and many of the reporters and jourtnalists who have followed it too, will be swept up in a tsunami of emotions: sadness that the mission has ended, relief that it was such a success, excitement at the prospect of all the data yet to study, and more. Many will feel a profound sense of loss, maybe enough to move them to tears, as a very significant chapter in their scientific careers comes to a very sudden and very public end.

I hope Monica Grady has bought a huge box of tissues, she’s going to need every one of them…

But not only scientists will feel moved on that day. Around the world many thousands of fans and supporters of the mission, who have faithfully followed the adventure all these months, will feel a real sense of loss too. Thanks to the tremendous and tireless efforts of the mission’s social media, education and outreach teams, ROSETTA has enjoyed probably the highest profile and most enthusiastic public  support of any ESA mission to date. Through their competitions, blogs and hugely-popular animated films they have brought ROSETTA to life in a way no other ESA mission has enjoyed. The stunning short SF  film “Ambition” must, by now, have been shown to the audiences of thousands of outreach events all over the world. (I have lost count of the number of times I’ve shown it as part of my Outreach work, and just for my own pleasure.) Let’s be frank here – ESA’s Outreach efforts used to suck. And I mean suck. They just didn’t seem to “get” how important it was for the public to feel involved with their missions, and to share the results of those missions – particularly the images taken by their spacecraft – with them. But now… now they definitely do Get It, and ROSETTA has been one of the most popular missions flown by any space agency.

Another reason why, when ROSETTA’s time orbiting CG ends, it will be a sad, sad day.

But, thanks to a picture taken by the probe on September 2nd, perhaps not as sad as we all thought it was going to be…

Because as successful as ROSETTA has been, one part of the mission didn’t go according to plan. When the little PHILAE lander descended from the orbiter on Nov 12th 2014 it was supposed to land on the comet’s surface, securing itself to the icy ground with harpoons, and then begin a programme of intensive science. Instead, its harpoons failed and the lander bounced off the comet, cartwheeling away from its landing site and heading off into the great unknown.

Measurements suggest that if it had bounced a little harder, and gone faster, PHILAE would have flown off into space altogether, and all its precious science would have been lost. But we now know that the lander bounced twice, like a stone skimming a pond, before finally coming to rest –

Well, that was the problem: we didn’t know where it eventually came to rest. We knew it had come down somewhere, because it sent back a handful of pictures soon after landing, frustrating images suggesting it was surrounded by cliffs of ice or stone. But as for where on the comet’s surface it had come down… no idea.

Despite its “non optimal landing orientation”, PHILAE survived for three precious days, long enough to send back priceless data from most of its payload of instruments, before its energy reserves ran out and it went into hibernation. We watched that happen live, online, and it was both thrilling to watch the scientists squeezing every possible last drop of science out of the lander’s short life before its batteries drained, and heartbreaking to watch the traces on the power graph suddenly drop like a stone…

Since then PHILAE has been, effectively, Missing In Action. It called out forlornly a few times, like a cat trapped down a well, raising hopes that it could be roused from its slumber and commanded to do more science, but those hopes were dashed when, admitting defeat, ESA finally stopped listening for signals from the lander, accepting the need to concentrate their efforts on keeping the orbiter operating as efficiently as possible, doing as much science as possible, during the time it had left.

And that was hard for many people. It was bad enough that PHILAE’s mission had been cut so cruelly short in the first place, but not knowing where it even was felt like the comet was rubbing salt in our wound. Every time we looked at an image of the comet we wondered “Where are you?” Even when amazing detective work by ROSETTA scientists revealed that PHILAE had in fact landed on its side, with its legs sticking in the air, not knowing where the lander was felt… awful. At least when the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit “died” on Mars we knew where she was, because we could see her on HiRISE photos. And when Beagle 2 was spotted on more images of Mars taken from orbit, many of us let out a sigh of relief, as it told us that at least the probe had made it TO the surface, and hadn’t burned up in the atmosphere like a piece of bacon left under a grill too long, as we had feared.

But PHILAE was just missing. We put “Have You Seen This Lander?” flyers up on lamp posts, offered rewards, but nothing. There was no sign of her, and that was troubling; as they say on the TV news a lot now, because it’s very trendy and fashionable, there was no “closure” without a photo showing PHILAE at its final resting place.

And, you know, with no photo of its grave it was hard to believe PHILAE had actually…. well… gone

Then, on Monday, just three weeks before the ROSETTA mission is due to come to an end, we finally got that “closure”. ESA released an image, taken on September 2nd, showing a craggy, rugged area of the comet. The image showed what looked like a close-up photo of a spilled bag of muesli, or a sack of builders’ rubble emptied out on a tabletop  – a truly chaotic landscape, with a steep hillside, its slopes strewn with boulders, rocks and outcrops, and caves, caves as dark and foreboding as anything found in Tolkien’s books…

But there, over on the far right of the image, just visible in one of those caves, half hidden in shadow, half bathed in sunlight, was… something. Something clearly artificial, metallic. I’ve ringed it on the image below so you don’t spend the next two hours straining your eyes looking for it. Enlarging the image by clicking on it will make it easier to see…


( credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA; context: ESA/Rosetta/NavCam – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0 )

If you zoom in on that, this is what you see…


(Original image ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA; context: ESA/Rosetta/NavCam – CC BY-SA,  IGO 3.0 Processing by Stuart Atkinson)

Look at that… There, in the dark shadow of that cave, beneath that huge, over-hanging boulder, is a machine of some sort.

Look even more closely, and you see this…


(Original image ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA; context: ESA/Rosetta/NavCam – CC BY-SA,  IGO 3.0 Processing by Stuart Atkinson)

I looked at that and thought “Oh, you poor thing… look at you…look where, and how, you ended up…” Because there’s no mistaking it, is there? That’s it. That’s PHILAE.

As the ROSETTA mission enters its twilight phase, with just three weeks to go until the lander hits the comet and goes silent forever, they found PHILAE.

Here’s a link to the official announcement on the ESA ROSETTA page.

Make no mistake about it, this is an amazing technical achievement by ESA. PHILAE was basically the proverbial needle in the haystack, except a) this particular haystack was constantly turning and spinning and wobbling, b) the needle ESA was looking for was the Gold Medal winner in the Olympics “Hide and Seek” competition, and c) the camera itself was moving. It’s also hugely important scientifically too, because locating PHILAE means the scientists who worked on it, and got results from it, now have the most important thing they could hope for: context.

What do I mean? Well, now they know exactly where PHILAE finally came to rest those scientists will be able to make a lot more sense out of the readings it took and the measurements it made before it fell asleep, because they can now see the bigger picture – the terrain and features around the landing site, the type of ground it is on, how much dust there is around it, what processes are going on around it, etc. In geology – on any world, or body – context is king.

So, we now have “closure” (awful word I know, sorry!) of a sort. We know where PHILAE “landed” after it decided its planned landing site was too boring and it took off like an inquisitive, restless hobbit in search of somewhere more interesting and exciting. That turned out to be a crevice or a cave in a mountainside, starved of sunlight, about as bad a choice of landing site for a fragile, solar-powered lander as it was possible to find. And rather than landing elegantly on its feet, like a cat jumping off a sofa, PHILAE landed on its side, lying up against the rock, with its slim legs sticking out and no hope of righting itself.

And that’s where it will stay.

But maybe not forever..?

Maybe one day, in the far future, astronauts will reach Comet CG and land on it, on a daring science mission inspired by ROSETTA’s. It would make sense to choose CG as a target for such a mission, which is surely inevitable; ROSETTA’s cameras have photographed CG in such astonishing detail that future explorers would be able to take maps of its surface with them, guiding them to the most interesting features and places. And once they’re there, surely those explorers would feel moved to go to PHILAE’s cave and pay their respects, photographing it for the sake of history, just as future lunar explorers will no doubt travel to the Apollo landing sites and pay their respects there.

And who knows, maybe they won’t stop there. Perhaps their mission will have another objective – to bring PHILAE home.

Imagine… it’s 2069… Halley’s Comet is returning to the inner solar system, and to mark its return it is decided to send people to CG, to follow-up ROSETTA’s studies and bring PHILAE back to Earth, to study how it has been affected by all its years on the comet before cleaning it and putting it on display. Imagine watching live footage from the astronauts’ cameras as they make their way down that slope, weaving through that field of boulders, towards the cave… suddenly, there, up ahead, a glint of metallic silvery light shining in the darkness beneath a huge boulder… they walk on, getting closer, and closer, until their prize comes into view: PHILAE, now covered with a mixture of dust and ice, but still recognisable from the way its spindly legs stick out from its side…  walking up to the lander the explorers slowly sweep their cameras across it, showing the millions watching back on Earth what they have travelled so far to see… one of the explorers reaches out with a shaking, gloved hand and gently wipes some of the dust away, revealing the shining blue solar panels beneath… Then, a long pause for photographs, the lander imaged from every possible angle, for context, before the explorers position themselves around it – and lift it, so, so carefully, off its side and set it back on its feet, as it should have been in the first place at a landing site so, so far away over the horizon… more photos as the lander is brushed and dusted clean, and then the watching millions see it lifted up from the ground and carried away from the cave which has been its grave for so many years… PHILAE is coming home…

A ridiculously sentimental and unrealistic idea, I know! But wouldn’t that be amazing? Wouldn’t that be a wonderfully inspiring thing to do, and watch?

Whatever happens in the future, whatever PHILAE’s eventual fate is, at least we know where it is now. And when the ROSETTA orbiter sets down on the comet in three weeks’ time it will be reunited with its partner in exploration.

I can’t wait to see the “reunion” animation ESA’s brilliant Outreach team creates to mark the end of the mission.

And I’ve already got my hankies ready.


Boulders, rocks and stones, oh my…

The Mars Science Laboratory is driving through some drop dead gorgeous terrain at the moment, carefully wending her way between tall buttes of crumbling martian stone. The latest photos to come back show a really steep butte, with its sides literally covered in boulders, rocks and stones, left there by the erosion of the butte over who knows how many millennia. I’ve spent some time today stitching them together into a single image and then processing that image into a single – I hope! – killer portrait of this beautiful region of Barsoom. I hope you’ll click on it to enlarge it, and then just spend some time scrolling around it, taking in the bewildering number and variety of rocks here, marvelling at all the different shapes and forms – the jagged, sharp blades, the tall stacks of razor-thin stone, the brittle spikes and spires, all carved by the soft but relentless winds of Mars over many millions of years.


Original images Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

NOT “Earth 2” – But Fascinating…

Today could be a rather exciting and important day for astronomers, professional and amateur alike, and anyone “into” space. Later today there will be a press conference by astronomers from the European Southern Observatory which will, if the rumours are true, be used to announce the discovery of a planet orbiting the star Proxima Centauri.

Why would that be a big deal? Because Proxima is the closest star to the Sun, “just” 4.3 light years away, so any planets found orbiting it will become the targets of research projects and intense study for years to come – and, without doubt, the target destinations for the first interstellar probes we make and despatch, sometime in the more distant future. And yes, looking even further ahead than that, it might seem like science fiction to even think about it, but any planet found whirling around Proxima Centauri will probably be the world the first human beings to journey to another star see through a spacecraft window – and then land on and walk on, if it has the right conditions to allow them to do that. It really could be that important.

If you’re into this kind of thing you’ll know that there is already a lot of excitement – and, it has to be said, hype – about this announcement and discovery. Again, yet again, an extra-solar planet is being labelled “Earth-like” (even before its discovery is officially announced!) just because (if the rumours, whispers and gossip prove accurate) of its size and where it is in that star’s solar system. That’s what astronomers looking for exo-planets mean by “Earth-like” when they describe a planet like that. The problem is, other people, like non-astronomers and the media, think “Earth-like” means actually “like Earth”, as in physically and visually – a world the same size as our own, a beautiful blue and white planet with surging oceans kissing warm sandy beaches, billowing clouds blown by soft summer winds, and life, life everywhere – in the sky, under the water, and in the fields. A truly Earth-like world would have seasons of sunshine and snow, rivers gurgling and tumbling down mountains, and kittens sleeping by crackling fires. That’s what people – and I know this for a fact, because I meet and talk to a lot of them in the course of my Outreach work – think a planet is like when they hear it described as “Earth-like”; not just a rocky-ish planet orbiting a star at roughly the Earth-equivalent distance from it.


Personally, this really winds me up, and others too, I know. I think the exo-planet community has to stop referring to planets as “Earth-like” when they’re really not, when they’re actually just “Earth-sized” or just in a star’s habitable zone. Why? two reasons. Firstly, I think at best it’s lazy science communication, and at worst misleading, even deceptive. But more importantly it will dilute the impact of the CONFIRMED discovery – and even imaging – of the first truly “Earth-like” planet: a world that is the same size as Earth (or a bit bigger or smaller), at the right distance from its star for terrestrial conditions to exist on its surface, and with the tell-tale chemical signatures of life detected on its surface or in its atmosphere. We’re a long, long way from making a discovery like that – but it will come, one day. But when it does, many people will just raise an eyebrow and say “Really? I thought we’d found lots of planets like Earth already?”

Already there has been a lot of speculation about the nature of the planet found orbiting Proxima, but we won’t know anything for certain until the big announcement later today. So what do we know?

Well, Proxima Centauri is a star in the southern celestial hemisphere, and is so far south that it is never visible from the UK. If you want to know where it is, here’s a finder chart – basically, on the next clear night, look for Mars and Saturn, shining low in the south west, then drop your gaze so you’re looking into the ground beneath them – that’s where Proxima is in the sky…


Proxima is a red dwarf star, much smaller than our Sun (only 1/7 its diameter in fact) and is too faint to be seen with the naked eye. It’s also a “flare star”, meaning it undergoes repeated violent burst of activity, which has led to many exo-planet hunters suggesting that would result in an unsuitable environment to support life on any planet orbiting it. Basically, Proxima itself is nothing like our own Sun, so calling any planet orbiting it “Earth-like” is a bit of a stretch from the very start, I think.

Having said that…

If a planet has been detected around it, it’s possible it MIGHT be a vaguely Earth-like planet, in the sense that it is the same size as our own, or roughly the same size, and is in Proxima’s habitable zone, meaning it’s not too hot or too cold for liquid water to exist on its surface. If that’s the news then I’ll personally shout out (in my head, not literally!) YESS!!! and celebrate, because it will be exciting and have real consequences for both the future of astronomy and the future of space exploration, because we’ll finally, finally have a potential destination for future un-crewed probes and, eventually, crewed expeditions. Yes, that will definitely be a big deal.

And if that is the discovery then we need to get serious about this planet. We need to give it a name, and a good name, quickly, because that will allow us in the astronomy community, especially those of us involved in outreach and education, to start thinking of it as a real place, a real destination “out there”, and to tell people about it and make it real for them, too.

There are already lots of exo-planets with names, thanks to the much- (and, it has to be said, sometimes fairly- ) maligned IAU. You can read about them here. But very few people outside of the astronomical community know any of them – in fact, I wonder how many people IN the astronomical community know them? Some are brilliant and sound suitably planetary and epic (“Arkas”, “Musica”) while others somehow don’t seem right at all (“Lich”, “Poltergeist”) but that’s just my opinion, others may love them. All have their own stories, so I’m sure each one has its own fans.

But I really think there’s a case for giving this planet orbiting Proxima a suitably historic and inspiring name, just because it will play an important part in our future. If it’s real, it will be studied by telescopes and astronomical instruments more than any other exoplanet. If it’s real, it is so tantalisingly close – in astronomical terms – that it has to be the destination for our first interstellar probes, even though a journey there would take a horrendously long time? If it’s real surely, surely it will be the destination for the first crewed starship to leave Earth, whenever that is built and launched, in some faraway science fiction future?

If/when people do eventually travel to Proxima Centauri, if it has any planets or not, they will see a starry sky remarkably similar to Earth’s. Using the Sky Safari app on my phone I was able to fly to Proxima and found that it is so close to the Sun that the relative positions of the more distant stars won’t appear to shift very much, so most of the constellations we see from here on Earth will look pretty much the same from Proxima. Of course, there are a couple of noteworthy exceptions. If you were to look at Orion, either from orbit around Proxima itself or from the surface of any planets it has, you’d see the famous Hunter’s familiar hourglass shape, with the belt tight across his waist, but you’d notice a bright blue-white star very close to Betelgeuse that definitely isn’t there from Earth: Sirius…


And if you looked towards Cassiopeia you’d see an unfamiliar golden star close to it… Our own Sun, over 4 light years away…


Anyway, let’s see what the announcement (or a leak of its contents sometime during the day, which is very possible) brings, shall we? I’m sure the science will be fascinating, whatever it is – but I’m also sure that if they use the term “Earth-like” too much during their press conference, without a very detailed clarification of what they actually mean when they use it, while astro-aware reporters will (hopefully!) cover the story accurately, the scientifically inaccurate mainstream media will go into feeding frenzy, as journalists latch on to the term “Earth-like” and think that means the new world is actually “like Earth”, writing about it in their subsequent papers and on their websites as if it is a shining blue-and-green world, complete with blue skies, fluffy white clouds, and unicorns drinking cool water from crystal ponds, in faerie glens deep in enchanted forests.

And aliens, maybe. Don’t forget the aliens. They’ll HAVE to speculate that the new planet has aliens on it: It’s the Law. -)


Beautiful Mars…

The Mars Science Laboratory rover CURIOSITY is seeing some literally jaw-dropping scenery at the moment, as she trundles through a landscape littered with buttes, boulders and scree slopes. Here’s an image I’ve made by stitching together lots of single MSL images and then processing it to bring out details and structures. Please click on it to enlarge it, then just enjoy wandering around..!


Original images Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech