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Looking back at Dalby Starfest 2015

team1bsmHaven’t had a chance to write up this brilliant weekend because I’ve been so busy, but glad to have a chance to now.

Back in the middle of August, seven members of the Eddington Astronomical Society, including myself and Stella, travelled over to Dalby Forest in North Yorkshire to attend the 2015 Scarborough and Ryedale AS “Starfest”. The event was held over four days, just after the peak of the annual Perseid meteor shower, so we were even more keen than usual to have clear night skies at the dark sky site of Dalby Forest so we would have a chance of seeing some bright shooting stars.

pan2With almost one whole “avenue” of the campsite all to ourselves, (“Eddington Street”, see above), we set up in our camper vans, tents, caravans and folding campers and enjoyed four days of astronomy fun.

group1Unlike other star-camps, which are more serious and attended by the more experienced amateurs who are there to do serious observing or astro-photography, the Scarborough and Ryedale AS “Starfest” is a real family event, so there were lots of kids rampaging around, not just weather- and world-weary amateur astronomers like ourselves, and everyone had a great time.

r2The event organisers, Mell and Andy, work ridiculously hard to ensure that the event is welcoming for everyone, with something for everyone to do and enjoy, and that the case again this year. There were illustrated talks in the evenings, on a variety of subjects, and through the day lots of mingling and astro-chatter with friends old and new.

r21On the Sunday the popular “Rocket Competition” was as fiercely competitive as ever, and an appreciative audience clapped, cheered and whooped as one home-built rocket (built out of a fizzy drinks bottle and decorated individually) after another whooshed into the beautiful blue sky, some going higher and further than others, but everyone who took part had great fun, which was the most important thing.

r11r12r13As for the night sky… well, I always go to star-camps without my hopes or expectations too high – thinking that if I get one night clear enough for some observing and photography I’ll be happy, and after a bad start on the Thursday and Friday nights the Saturday night was gloriously clear, and I was outside until almost 2am taking photos of the sky with my iOptron tracker and wandering around the campsite, enjoying stunning views of galaxies, star clusters and nebulae through the telescopes of others.

plough1The Milky Way looked beautiful, airbrushed across the sky, and I was very pleased with the photos I took. Here are some of the best ones…

m way best fM31 BEST 3

pano mw1spano mw2bsun1Saturday was a very dewy night tho, and by the time I eventually went to bed everything – my coat, my camera, its lenses – was wringing wet, and that left the sky rather hazy too, but I was very pleased with the photos I took.

darn2The next night, the Sunday, had clear spells, clear enough to allow me to take some more photos, but Saturday was by far the best.

It was a fantastic weekend, and just to drape a deep, heavy layer of icing over the cake, to our delight and surprise, and the surprise of others too, I think, our astro society’s team won the Astronomy Pub Quiz! Again this year the Pub Quiz had a very friendly, inclusive feel, with something for everyone, not just experts and specialists, and after all the laughter and cheering during the rounds even the lowest-scoring team managed to get points on the scoreboard, so no-one went away feeling humiliated or inadequate, which was certainly the case a couple of years ago. Well done to the organisers!

stella trailer 1So, another excellent Starfest at Dalby forest, and a huge THANK YOU to the organisers for working so hard to ensure everyone who attended had a good time, again. We’re already looking forward to next year!

Another NAVCAM beauty…

The ROSETTA NAVCAM team has done it again – released a jaw-dropping image of Comet 67P that shows just what a stunning object the comet is…


That new image really shows how active the comet is now it has passed perihelion. And it’s only going to get more active, so we can look forward to increasingly-dramatic views over the coming weeks.

Thank you again to the brilliant NAVCAM team, and all the ROSETTA Outreach people, for keeping the ROSETTA mission alive for us out here. I think we are due another mass release of NAVCAM images to the ESA Archives next month, but I’m checking on that because I’ve lost track a bit.

And you never know, we might see some more OSIRIS images soon, too.

ROSETTA sees 67P bursting into life…

Comet 67P is now approaching perihelion, its closest point to the Sun, and the unmanned European Space Agency probe ROSETTA has been taking increasingly stunning images of the activity on the comet as it enters its most active period. For a while now, the ever-reliable NAVCAM team have been sharing with us their views of the comet, releasing almost every day a new image showing jets and plumes of dust and gas shooting out of the comet’s nucleus, like this one…


The other day the OSIRIS team released a rare but very welcome image of the activity they are seeing in close-up, and predictably the image was snapped up and lapped up by both media and public alike, proof – if any proof is actually needed after all this time – that there’s a real fascination with and hunger for the high resolution views the OSIRIS team are seeing but, mostly, keeping to themselves.

Here’s the image…

Outburst_in_action cropCredit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

I know what springs to mind when you look at that image…


That’s one of the most striking images taken during the ROSETTA mission so far, I think, and it shows just how active the comet is. In fact, that image is one of a sequence of images, which together show that this was a short-lived event, a real sploosh of gas and dust spurting out of the nucleus for a brief time before dying away again…


That must have been like a fire extinguisher going off beneath the crust. Imagine standing nearby and seeing that… wow….

It was great to see that image released into the wild, and thanks should go to the OSIRIS team for that, but I remain absolutely baffled by their attitude to image release. For example, there’s a big astronomy event going on in Hawaii at the moment, a meeting of the IAU, at which astronomers from all around the world gather to share their latest data and discoveries, and as you would expect the ROSETTA mission is represented there too. Last night OSIRIS PI Holger Sierks gave a presentation about the most recent findings at 67P, and although I wasn’t able to watch the presentation I was able to follow it, in a way, via Twitter, as people who were there tweeted about it. This particular Tweet caught my eye…


WOW! OSIRIS is now seeing pieces of the comet breaking off as it approaches perihelion! Other tweets reported that OSIRIS has seen wide-scale surface modification on the comet – i.e. previously-photographed features on its surface have either changed or gone altogether – which bodes well for the weeks ahead, when 67 will really start to wake up. But this image caught my eye too, for a different reason…


Look at all those empty chairs! Where WAS everyone??? Now, I know that that is probably a huge room, and that talks run parallel at these events, so attendees can’t get to everything, but still…

And I couldn’t help thinking that that picture shows a very basic flaw in the OSIRIS team’s argument that they can’t release images because they fear their work being stolen by other scientists. Because, while some of the people in that room will have been journalists, others were *scientists*, some of them probably the very ones the OSIRIS team are so worried about gazumping them, yet they were perfectly happy to show them images that aren’t being seen elsewhere…

Er, does anyone else think that is just a bit nuts? I mean, if I was a scientist and I was genuinely worried about someone using my images to steal my research out from under my nose, I just wouldn’t show them to *anyone*. I certainly wouldn’t show them to a roomful of my competitors. That’s asking for trouble, surely?

It does rather suggest that, as I have thought all along, the OSIRIS team a) simply does not want to share its images with the media and the public, and b) really doesn’t get the importance of the whole “outreach thing”. They are clearly happy to share their images with fellow scientists, at big conferences, but letting the public see them, by releasing them to the media, seems out of the question. And that’s both wrong, and, frankly, ridiculous. It’s actually shooting themselves in the foot. I mean, look at the recent public and media reaction to the releases of the NEW HORIZONS images, that was fantastic! Imagine how people would react to seeing those OSIRIS images of *pieces of the comet coming off the nucleus*! Imagine the PR boost that would give the ROSETTA mission, and ESA!

I don’t know, I just don’t get it. They just don’t seem to realise how important a part of any space mission outreach and public engagement is. Baffling, seriously.

In an ideal world all the images that have been shown at the IAU event would now be released into the wild, via the ESA website, seeing as they have been seen *in public* at a major international science conference open to the media. But I doubt that will happen.

Go on, OSIRIS team, prove me wrong… :-)

ROSETTA – One Year On…

It’s hard to believe, but it’s true – it’s now almost a year since ROSETTA “arrived” at Comet 67P! Ok, so the actual arrival day wasn’t until early August, but by this time last year the NAVCAM images were starting to show the true shape of, and some detail on, the nucleus of Comet 67P. Take a look at how 67P looked on July 29th last year, and how it looks on the most recent NAVCAM image to be released…


What a wonderful year it’s been! Through ROSETTA’s eyes we’ve seen a comet revealed in its true glory for the first time, watched it wake up as it nears the Sun, seen jets and plumes of gas and dust bursting off it, shining in the darkness. We’ve seen its towering cliffs, deep pits and boulder-strewn plains of dusty ice, stark black and white in the harsh light of the faraway Sun. Now the comet is approaching perihelion – the closest point to the Sun in its orbit – and I’m sure ROSETTA scientists are just as intrigued as we all are to see what will happen when the comet is at its warmest. Will there be a sudden burst of activity? Will it actually split in two, along the famous crack seen on its neck?

So, a year after arriving at 67P ROSETTA is still doing incredible science, and sending back incredible images, and thanks to the ongoing and tireless work of the ROSETTA Outreach team and the the NAVCAM team, many thousands – yes, thousands! – of those images are available online for us to browse and drool over at our leisure. There is a gallery of them here, straining at the seams there are so many NAVCAM images crammed into it…!


Sadly, almost a year after ROSETTA arrived at 67 the OSIRIS team still has not released a proper batch of images, as it said it would, and as it is supposed to under the terms of its own – rather dodgy, it has to be said – agreement with ESA. I’ve written about this situation at length on this blog already, and my opinion of the OSIRIS team and their image release policy is well known, so I won’t go through all that again here now. I will, however, point out the stark contrast between the different behaviours and attitudes of the OSIRIS team and the NEW HORIZONS team.

collage nh osiris

So, as ROSETTA accompanies 67P on its plunge towards the Sun a year after catching up with it, I’d like to say a huge THANK YOU again to all the people responsible for ROSETTA’s Outreach program, and for working on and releasing the NAVCAM images which essentially *are* the mission, because without them we wouldn’t even know the probe was still doing anything.

I can’t wait to see what wonders await in the next batch of NAVCAM images!

Mapping Pluto and Charon

Before we go any further, just take a moment to look at the title of this post again… “Mapping Pluto and Charon”… isn’t that crazy?? A couple of weeks ago both Pluto and Charon were just points of light in the sky, at best tiny discs on images taken by the Hubble telescope. Now we have flown a space-probe past them, and seen them in sufficient detail to allow maps of their surfaces to be drawn. That’s insane..!

But even better, many of the features shown on those maps have now been given (provisional) names by the New Horizons team, with many more names to follow. Overnight Pluto and Charon have gone from being just (just! ha!!) visually exciting but almost cool beyond words thanks to the names chosen by the New Horizons team, names which were suggested by members of the public.

There’s a full list of all the names given to features so far here…

Pluto Name Bank Proposal

…but basically the names given to features on Pluto, Charon and its other moons all follow certain themes. Here are the themes, and some of my favourite names plucked from their lists of features on the maps…


* Important spacecraft from the history of spaceflight: Challenger; Voyager.

* Scientists and Engineers: Burney (not a scientist or an engineer, but the young girl who suggested Pluto’s name after it was discovered, so only fair, I say!)

* Historic Explorers: Norgay

* Underworld Beings:Cthulhu; Balrog (VERY cool!)

* “Underworlds and Underworld locales”: Tartarus

* Underworld Travellers: Heracles.



CHARON: ( aka “ComicCon Moon” from now on… )

* Fictional Explorers and Travellers (the most fun theme, they might just have well have called it “Fave sci-fi characters”!): Kirk, Spock, Skywalker, Leia. Solo, Vader, Dorothy (Wizard of Oz)

* Fictional Origins and Destinations (aka “Fave place on a sci fi story!): Vulcan (that’s a huge surprise, isn’t it? Not.), Shire, Mordor, Tatooine, Hoth, Galifrey (YES!!!! YES!!!!!!!!!!!!! GALLIFREY FALLS NO MORE!!!!!), Krypton.

* Fictional Vessels (aka coolest spaceships from sci fi!): Serenity (oh… sniff…!!!), TARDIS (get IN there!!!), Nostromo (come on… you know this one… the butt-ugly mining ship from Alien? There you go…), (strangely, no “Enterprise” here… odd)

* Exploration Authors, Directors and Artists: D Adams (as in Douglas “Hitch-hikers Guide” Adams), Clarke (as in Arthur C).



* River Gods: Hapi (named after the Pharell Williams song… ok, no, not really…)


* Deities of The Night: Incubus, Succubus (ok, junior school teachers, try explaining those in class…)


* Dogs from History, Literature and Mythology: Laika (long, LONG overdue!!!!!), Toto (Dorothy’s dog, thus ensuring 99% of visitors to Kerberos in the future will say “I don’t think we’re on Earth any more, Toto…” to their mate after stepping off the shuttle, convinced they’re the first person ever to think of it…)


* Legendary Serpents and Dragons: Smaug (again, long overdue, and some enterprising colonists or settlers will surely arrange some rocks into Smaug’s shape in the future)

…and many, many more to come!

Seriously, well done New Horizons team for choosing those names, and for showing yet again just how in touch they are with the general public following the mission  “out here” . Some dusty fuddy-duddies might moan that the names of some features, especially those on Charon, are too geeky and sci fi, but (loud raspberry noise) to them, those are all good, honourable names, the names of people, places and vessels which have inspired and excited generations of people to follow space exploration or follow careers in it. To know that there are craters called Kirk and Spock on Pluto is quite moving, and I am obviously thrilled to bits that The Doctor’s home planet and spaceship have been honoured, too.

And as for naming a feature on Charon after Laika… thank you, just thank you.

Some of you reading this are probably thinking “What’s the point? No-one will go there for decades, if not centuries!” Well, for one thing, naming the features on Pluto and its moons is just a practical thing for the New Horizons team to do – they can’t just go on talking about “that crater up there, near the bigger one, just below the valley…” forever. they need to be able to talk about local landmarks and features and have everyone know which one they’re referring to right away. And also, naming things on a map, if it’s of a coastline, a continent, a moon or a whole planet – makes it more real to us as human beings, and helps us get our bearings. If that wasn’t the case, why would we bother naming the spiral arms of our own galaxy, or even naming star clusters, nebulae and galaxies in the depths of space? It’s just what we do, and will always do. One day astronauts standing on Mars will christen the largest rocks and boulders scattered around their landing site, just as astronomers will one day name the continents, mountain ranges and islands of planets and moons orbiting distant stars, to make them, just as the first people to set foot on those exotic worlds will give names to the new constellations glittering above their settlements after their alien sun has set.

Time to update a certain picture, I think…!

collage pluto mao

Look what science, dreams and determination did, working together…:-)

NOTE: the maps used in this blog post originally appeared in this feature on Buzzfeed

The beauty of Pluto

Every now and again, on a day which comes out of nowhere, when we’ve slipped into taking for granted the fact that we live in an age when beautiful new images of distant planets, moons, star clusters and galaxies are available for us to enjoy almost every day, the universe gives us a serious; hard kick up the backside by showing us something… remarkable. Then we all sit back in our chairs, stare at it in genuine shock and awe, and all we can do is shake our heads and mouth a silent “Oh wow…”

Yesterday was one of those days.

I’ve managed to watch all the previous New Horizons media events from the comfort of my sofa, with my laptop on my knee, Peggy purring beside me, and the new pictures displayed in all their widescreen glory on my laptop’s Big Screen. It has been like being in the front row of a cinema showing the NASA TV feed live, and I’ve loved it – and a huge thank you, again, to the New Horizons team for sharing their images, their thoughts and their sheer joy with us.

Yesterday, however, I was unable to do that. After a mid-day funeral over in the north east, as the press conference began I found myself in a buffet restaurant, with my laptop and cat the best part of seventy miles away, and only my phone to take me to the latest media briefing. Of course, the wifi signal in the place was dodgy, so i had to use my phone provider’s web access, which was little better than dial-up speed and so not fast enough to le me actually watch the NASA TV coverage, and to just squirt cream on the top of the cake I was down to 11% battery charge left too. Great. But of course I took a look anyway, too impatient to wait until we got home to look at the latest images. Unable to watch the media briefing itself I turned to Twitter to follow the event as it unfolded, which is almost as good because people attending and watching the briefings – not just reporters or bloggers or space enthusiasts like myself, but scientists involved in the New Horizons mission and others – report on them in real-time via Twitter, and it’s almost as good, actually better in some ways, as it’s so much fun and so educational to read the delighted/baffled/giddy tweets from experts seeing the pictures for the first time and doing “instant science” with the.

So,  anyway, there I was, attacking a plateful of lasagne and garlic bread, when someone (can’t remember who now) posted a link to a pic on Twitter, saying something like “OMG! OMG!!! PLUTOOOOOOOOO!” in the Tweet. Intrigued I tapped the link on my touchscreen –


…and I just sat there in stunned silence, fork hovering in mid-air halfway to my mouth, literally struck dumb by it.

That was… Pluto… seen from behindeclipsing the Sun.. its hazy atmosphere a glowing halo all around it…

Pluto’s atmosphere.

Sitting there I was hit by the fantastically ridiculous absurd thrill of the moment. I started sky-watching as a very young kid, stealing glimpses of the Moon and its craters through borrowed binoculars and then my first cheap toyshop telescope. Growing up I got deeper and deeper into the hobby, bought telescopes, cameras and computers, all of which dragged me deeper down still. Now here I was, all grown up (ha!), a children’s astronomy book author and editor, proud Secretary of my local astronomical society, sitting in a noisy, heaving restaurant, in Gateshead, surrounded by hundreds of people feasting on pizza, burgers, salads, ice cream and more, and I was looking at an image of Pluto taken from behind, by a departing space probe, on my phone

When i got home I fired up the laptop and caught up with the images release properly. The caption beneath the released HQ version of the photo says:

Backlit by the sun, atmospheric haze rings Pluto’s silhouette like a luminous halo in this image taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft around midnight EDT on July 15. This global portrait of the atmosphere was captured when the spacecraft was about 1.25 million miles (2 million kilometers) from Pluto and shows structures as small as 12 miles across. The image was delivered to Earth on July 23.

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

…but that doesn’t do justice to it, does it? That is a stunning, stunning image. Just take a moment to drink it in, to savour it, to roll it around your heart and mind like the last sip of a glass of fine wine. That’s Pluto, that’s the “dwarf planet” thought for so long to be a boring, dull, ball of ice way out there at the classical solar system’s edge. We’ve thought for a long time that it has an atmosphere, that comes and goes as it orbits the Sun, but I never expected to see it so vividly and beautifully on an actual photo. did you? It’s a grossly over-used term, but I think it’s fair to say that that image is now one of the iconic images of the space age, and you will be seeing it in every astronomy text book published from now on, every single one, now that Pluto has been transformed from a small disc with vague markings to a real, vibrant world with craters, plains, mountains and more.

More images were released yesterday, including this new (new, that is, unless you’d already seen it on Brian may’s blog) high resolution view of Pluto…


…and this beautiful new “false colour” view of Pluto…


…and this landmark image, which shows glaciers on Pluto… yes, GLACIERS!!!

04_McKinnon_02c…but I keep going back to that wonderful back-lit Pluto image… I wonder how the New Horizons team felt when that appeared on their screens? I wonder how many couldn’t breathe for a moment, or actually shed a tear? Probably more than one, because it’s clear from watching and listening to them during their media briefings that they are loving every single moment of this, relishing it, and the joy they’re feeling shines out of them. And of course, best of all, they are letting us share their excitement and joy by releasing their images and talking to us about them, so we feel involved in the mission, a part of it, not outside of it looking in.

pluto behind2

They didn’t have to do that. Following the example of another science team, they could have whined about the threat of people stealing their science, and, shouting “Proprietary period!!!” retreated behind their doors, slamming and locking them behind them, allowing no-one in, reluctantly sliding a picture or two under the door every now and again just to do the absolute bare minimum.

Thankfully, Alan Stern and the New Horizons chose not to follow that example, and as a result their mission has ignited the public’s imagination. Pluto images are everywhere, everywhere, and both NASA and the New Horizons team are riding high on the crest of a wave of public admiration and support. No-one is questioning the expense of it all, they’re just caught up in the joy of the exploration, and it’s wonderful, it really is. So, again, thank you to the New Horizons team for letting us accompany you on your voyage of discovery. And if anyone from that other team is reading this, i just hope that when you were watching the New Horizons media briefings, devouring the beautiful images like I was, seeing the excitement and passion of the team, and reading the gushing blog posts, Facebook reports, Tweets, newspaper editorials, and watching the generous TV news coverage of the New Horizons mission that followed you suddenly thought “Oh ****, we’ve done this all wrong, we’ve made a huge mistake…” because yes, yes you have. You could have done it the right way, you were encouraged and asked to do it the right way, but you chose not to. Congratulations.

In the meantime, there will probably be something of a pause in image/science releases from the New Horizons team now, as they focus on science and safely downloading more data from their spacecraft, but I reckon they won’t be able to contain their excitement if anything spectacular comes back and they’ll let us see. So, keep checking back here for new images.

Pluto and Charon in close-up

Friday evening there was another media briefing from the New Horizons team, this time at NASA HQ, and more images taken during the fly-by were released out into the wild. The team looked excited but tired, and the big reveal of the previous media event was a hard act to follow, but the images they showed – with Brian May beaming from the audience – were beautiful and showed just what a fascinating world Pluto is.


Here’s a view of part of the flatter, brighter region referred to so far as the “heart”, which has now, very fittingly, been christened (also informally for the moment) “Tombaugh Regio” in honour of Pluto’s discoverer… and to everyone’s surprise it shows a landscape very reminiscent of the icy polar terrain found on both Earth and Mars…


The mission scientists – as well as other scientists and armchair experts all around the world – have been pouring over that image and speculating giddily about what it shows, and are very excited about the dark features gathered in the “cracks in the pavement” on the edges of the polygonal features. Some are vertical features – mounds, hills, whatever. Elsewhere, some dark spots look suspiciously, to some, like they could be pits, and many are wondering if we’re seeing evidence of Triton-like geysers and maybe even plumes on Pluto…!


Looking forward to seeing higher resolution images of those in the days, weeks and months ahead.

The pace of image release will really slow now, as the team knuckles down and starts getting stuck into the science, so the next big media briefing will be next Friday night. I’m sure we’ll see some more wonderful portraits of Pluto then. :-)


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