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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…

March 11 2014

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. :-)

Comet Tales…

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

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

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

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

http://blogs.esa.int/rosetta/2015/04/20/osiris-catches-activity-in-the-act/

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

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

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

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

Comet_on_15_April_2015_NavCam Comet_on_15_April_2015_b_NavCam

ESA/Rosetta/NavCam – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0

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

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

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

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Dec 28th

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Jan 12th

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Jan 13th

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Jan 16th

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Jan 18th

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Feb 3rd

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Feb 26th

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March 28th

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April 15th

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April 19th

… … …

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

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

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

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

I can’t wait to find out…!

Quick ROSETTA catch-up…

I’ve been so busy drooling over the latest images from Opportunity recently that I’ve kind of neglected the ROSETTA mission to Comet 67P. ROSETTA is still there, swooping and soaring above and around the comet, which is now showing significant activity with glowing jets and plumes and streamers of gas and dust shooting out of it in all directions. And. as they promised us they would, the NAVCAM team continues to regularly release images, some showing wide field views of the comet’s whole nucleus, others showing the comet’s bewildering landscape in stunning close up. Here are a few of the most recent, and my processed versions of them…

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Today the NAVCAM team released a whole batch of images taken during a recent close fly-by. The images are beautiful, richly-detailed and show the comet’s tortured, bizarre surface on all its glory. You can see all the new images here

One of the most striking images released today is this two frame mosaic of the Imhotep region of the comet…

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Click on that to enlarge it and lose yourself in all the spikes, towers, pits and layers of the comet’s landscape. As soon as I saw that I knew I had to have a go at processing it – as usual, not with any high pretensions of making it “better”, that would be ridiculous.No, really just to make it more dramatic and jump out of the screen. See what you think anyway…

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I’ve just tried to make it starker, as I’ve said before, more like the images in the “Full Moon” book published all those years ago.

Actually, ROSETTA almost paid a high price for those images. As a frightening post on the ROSETTA blog explains, during the fly-by the probe’s star-tracking navigation instruments were confused by the blizzard of snowballs and particles now surrounding the nucleus, and it became a little disoriented. Read all about it here…

http://blogs.esa.int/rosetta/2015/04/01/rosetta-status-report-close-flyby-navigation-issues/

Phew!

Thanks again to the NAVCAM team for continuing to release their wonderful images, which allows all of us to accompany ROSETTA as she explores and studies this fascinating icy world…!

Book review: “The Rain” and “The Storm” by Virginia Bergin

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I read a lot, as you can imagine – astronomy, science reference and obviously a LOT of science fiction, too. Like any good SF reader I have my favourites, and am very loyal to Kim Stanley Robinson, Stephen Baxter and a handful of others, but I do try to stay open to new ideas, new genres and new authors. I also like a good YA novel too.

Hmmmm. “YA”… stands for “Young Adult”, obviously, but what do you think of when you see that term, in print, on a screen or on a bookshop shelf? In recent years the YA market has – I think – become saturated, and now the shelves in your local Waterstones, Borders or indie book shop will be groaning miserably under the weight of YA novels. Browse the covers and titles and you’ll probably come away with the idea that a lot of YA literature – and I do mean a LOT – is basically recycled versions of the “Twilight” or “Hunger Games” books; go take a look at the YA shelves in your local shop and marvel at the number of books written about lovesick teenagers pining for a werewolf, vampire, zombie or some other hunky, broody supernatural creature that hides a heart of gold beneath their soft fur/milk-white skin/disintegrating skin, which is itself hidden beneath a wardrobe of clothes One Direction would die to be photographed in. Personally I’m holding out for the story of a doomed love affair between a stroppy teenage girl and an undead unicorn prince, it can’t be long, surely…

And if a YA book isn’t about a doomed love affair between a mortal and an immortal, it is probably about a frustrated love affair between a boy and a girl living in a dystopian future where Adults Are Bad and only they can bring about a revolution. I came to “The Hunger Games” quite late, but read the whole series during a camping holiday, devouring each book like a hungry man let locked overnight in a chinese buffet, so thankfully I don’t have to read all the subsequent titles and series which were clearly “inspired” by those brilliant, brilliant books.

So, browsing the YA shelves can be a bit of a sigh-fest now, I think. Lots of the same.

But… every now and then you spot something on a shelf that looks… different, new, something shiny. And when you buy it, and read it, it’s so refreshing it’s like plunging your face into a bucket of cold water on a hot day. And that’s how I felt as I was reading “The Rain” by Virginia Bergin, after picking it up in a charity shop. I loved it so much I bought its sequel, “The Storm”, from my local Waterstones just two days after finishing it.

Without giving too much away – I HATE reviews which do that! – these two books are a post apocalypse tale, but with a unique and very, very clever twist. As the title of book 1 suggests, the end of the world isn’t brought about by plague, or nuclear war, but by something much more everyday and taken for granted – the rain. There’s something nasty in the rain, something very nasty, which causes the world to go to hell in an abandoned ALDI supermarket trolley.

And that is such a clever idea, worthy of Stephen Moffat himself. Think about it – what the hell are you supposed to do if the water falling from the sky is desperate to kill you? If your supply of water, which you’ve always taken for granted, is suddenly gone? The water in your kettle? Deadly. The water in your pipes? Death in liquid form. Those fluffy clouds starting to roll across the hills over there? Messengers of DEATH. What the hell do you do? You can fight zombies with well-placed head shots and kill a vampire (a proper vampire, not a Boy Band glitter-coated Cullenesque vampire). But how do you fight a shower?

And struggling to survive in that hell is a young girl, Ruby.

Now, let’s be honest, a lot of YA heroines are basically Katniss clones, kick-ass Mockingjay wannabes (and come on, there will only ever be one Katniss) who have almost superhuman powers, even if their hormone-soaked teenage hearts are just as fragile and confused as everyone else’s. Not our Ruby. Ruby is a real girl, and by that I mean a very believable, real person, with real faults, hang-ups and problems. I loved reading her and spending time with her. Virginia Bergin writes Ruby so sensitively, so accurately that she jumped off the page. And, refreshingly, Ruby speaks, and sounds, through her dialogue, like an actual teenager, not like an adult trying to fit in with kids.

You remember how all the “teenagers” in Dawson’s Creek (showing my age now, I know!) talked SO MUCH and used such clever, such oh so clever language that they could have been gifted interns in The West Wing instead of troubled kids in an achingly pretty American Town? Yeah, well Ruby is nothing like that. She’s a kid and talks like a kid, and acts like a kid too. She’s not always likeable – sometimes she really is that spoiled, moody, stroppy, hurtful, insensitive brat you see at a bus stop who seems destined to be on a Jeremy Kyle special one day – but then she makes you love her by doing something so nice, so sweet you feel guilty for being mad at/disappointed in her earlier.

Anyway, enough about Ruby, if I say much more I’ll spoil her for you, and I want you to have the joy of meeting her properly for yourself. The books are the story of Ruby’s journey through a post apocalypse world in search of her father, and her adventures along the way. Well, when I say her “adventures”, what I really mean is her long catalogue of encounters with people and situations which are so dire and so horrible by the end of “The Rain” I wanted to reach into the book, pull her out and sit her down in a quiet corner of MacDonalds, with a burger and a large Coke, just so she could have a bit of peace and quiet without anyone trying to kill or rip her off for half an hour.

In “The Rain” we follow Ruby’s journey immediately after The End of The World, as she travels through a deserted southern England looking for her father, and Bergin brings the landscapes vividly to life, painting a very realistic – and very, very British – picture of what’s left after civilisation collapses. In the sequel, “The Storm” , we follow Ruby as she is forced to confront some awful truths as civilisation, at least in England. attempts to recover from its Fall. Like most YA heroines she is forced to grow up, quickly, as agencies and individuals alike try to thwart her plans and/or kill her, and by the end of the sequel I was quite breathless, so much had happened to the poor girl. There are lots of shocks and surprises along the way, but it’s shame that the biggest revelation in the whole book, the pivotal point of the whole story, is absolutely RUINED by the artwork on the front cover! Which numptie editor agreed to that image being used? Seriously, River Song would have taken one look at that cover and blasted it, shouting “Spoilers!!!”

“The Rain” (which I should probably tell you is called “H20″ in the US… hmmm, brave move that… just sayin’…) and “The Storm” feature a lot of the YA staples – teen romance, annoying friends, adult hate figures – but they’re not just items included for the sake of it, to be shoe-horned into the plot and ticked off a Must Use checklist once used, they actually sit comfortably in the story and have a right to be there. And ok, so the ending of “The Storm” is rushed, and everything seemed to wrap up very suddenly, but maybe that was just because I was hoping there would be a third book in the series, and when I got to the end of “The Storm” I had to accept that there wouldn’t be…

Great read. “The Road” for this generation of stroppy, growing-up-too-quickly iPhone-owning teens, and a roller-coaster ride for those of us who occasionally like to forget how old we are and, putting aside our hard science fiction, dive into something different.

 

A galaxy far, far away…

I think it’s common knowledge by now that I am head over heels about my iOptron star tracker. It’s a fantastic piece of kit, and I feel like it has somehow given me a whole new sky. Ok, so I’m kicking myself – hard – that I didn’t buy it a couple of months earlier, so I could have used it to photograph Comet Lovejoy at its best, but without a TARDIS or a DeLorean there’s nothing I can do about that. I have it now, and it’s brilliant, and it’s letting me take images I have dreamed of taking for a long time.

Last Thursday night I went up to a (reasonably) dark sky site just outside Kendal with my friend and observing buddy Carol, a fellow member of the Eddington Astronomical Society of Kendal, and I got some really nice shots with the iOptron, like these…

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Comet Lovejoy, now drifting quietly through Cassiopeia as it heads back out into deep space… and it still has a pretty tail…

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The famous “Double Cluster”, not too far from Lovejoy and Cassiopeia actually…

And I took this image too – this is a crop from a stack of four images of varying exposures taken with my Canon 1100D, with my beloved 135mm “vintage” lens…

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That’s the spiral galaxy M101, which lies close to the end of the Great Bear’s tail and is a great favourite of many amateur and professional astrophotographers. I know, it doesn’t look much, just a small smudgy cloudy… thing… but that’s not the point. The point is, I took that image with my iOptron and my (below!) entry level DSLR and an old, battered 135mm M42 mount lens, from a car park beside a small church just outside Kendal, and I never thought I would. I am chuffed to bits with that image, because you can see the spiral arms quite clearly –

And again, many people reading this will be thinking “So what!” because a moment’s Google searching for images of M101 brings up literally thousands, taken from all around the world, and even the most basic “through a telescope” shot shows more detail than mine! But seriously, when that image popped into view when Deep Sky Stacker had done its thing, I was beyond chuffed. It really hit me that that little cream-in-coffee swirl glowing softly behind the curtain of glittering stars is a galaxy… a GALAXY for pity’s sake… and it’s a galaxy much bigger than our own Milky Way, perhaps as much as 70% bigger. That little smoky catherine wheel contains hundreds of billions of stars MORE than our own Milky Way…  Even more amazingly, it is over 21 million light years away… 21 MILLION… that means that the light which entered my humble little Canon that evening, moving down through my old faithful 135mm Soligor lens to register on the camera’s chip set off 21 million years earlier, when our ancestors were still shimmying up and down trees…

Looking at that image I can’t help but wonder… how many civilisations does that galaxy contain? How many of its stars are the “Sun” to a species that evolved to know its place in the universe? How many living, lush, green and blue worlds lie within those gracefully curving spiral arms? How advanced is the life there? Do empires spanning dozens of systems thrive there? Do gleaming starships plough through the epic voids between the scattered suns…? Do astronomers on its inhabited worlds, amateur and professional, see our own Milky Way as a tiny spiral smudge in the sky, and photograph it with their own telescopes, cameras and iOptrons, from their church car parks..?  I guess we’ll never know.

But I do know that I am very pleased with that image, and I think I can feel a bit of a quest coming on now… a quest to capture the Spring’s galaxies with my iOptron. I can’t compete with the Hubble, or with accomplished astrophotographers like the legendary Robert Gendler, but I can hopefully make some pretty pictures of my own :-)

collage m101c

Looking back at the eclipse…

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( Image: Carol Grayson, Eddington Astronomical Society of Kendal )

So, that’s it then, after all the build-up and anticipation, the eclipse is over, it’s history, the long-awaited Big Day came and went. Here in Kendal, somewhat disappointingly, we only caught brief glimpses of the eclipsed Sun through the clouds, but that’s more than many people saw, and as you can see from Carol Grayson’s photo at the top there it did look gorgeous when we were allowed to see it by the Cumbrian weather. Of course, the day before the eclipse the Sun was splitting the trees, it was so sunny and hot, and the day after the eclipse was glorious too, as is today. In fact, not half an hour after the eclipse finished the clouds above Kendal tore open and the Sun blazed above The Auld Grey Town for the rest of the day… Not fair, just not fair.

But that’s astronomy for you, at least, astronomy in Cumbria. You get used to it –

Actually no, you don’t. Every meteor shower missed, every naked eye comet that slips away without being enjoyed, every display of the northern lights which rages unseen behind the thick, foul grey hurts. It hurts. It feels like a cruel injustice, especially when you see everyone else’s glorious images on Spaceweather.com. You never get used to it.

Seeing anything exciting “up there” in the Cumbrian Sky is such a challenge, and we beat the weather so rarely, that if you don’t want to go mad, or turn into a twisted, bitter astronomical Gollum, hating others for their better lives, you learn to take pleasure – or to try and take pleasure – in the success of others, so I am genuinely pleased that such a large number of people across the UK were able to see the eclipse, or at least some part of it –

– and I am absolutely furious that some children were actually banned from watching it from their schools, and were instead forced to “enjoy” the spectacle inside, on TV.

No, I’m not joking. In 2015, when eclipse-watching safety advice is available to anyone, for free, with a moment’s searching on Google, when most towns and cities have at least one astronomical society, some children were actually banned from watching the eclipse outside. It beggars belief.

Think I’m making this up? Think this is just one of those “urban myths” which pop up at times like this? Unfortunately, no.

pano20 Image4

You might expect such a thing in countries or in societies which are more superstitious or religious. You might expect such a thing in places where religious zealots and science-hating, black flag-waving fanatics rule the population with guns and knives. You absolutely wouldn’t expect it in a country that is science savvy, the country of Patrick Moore, Brian Cox, Sir Isaac Newton, the Royal Observatory and Jodrell Bank.

I know schools have to be very careful with their pupils’ safety, they have an extremely serious responsibility to ensure it. And maybe, being charitable, some of the people involved did believe they were doing the right thing. But they were wrong. Preventing kids from viewing this eclipse was a huge mistake.

Here in Kendal we lost count of how many kids were brought down to watch the eclipse by their parents, and there were even groups FROM schools which were brought along by their teachers to ensure they were able to enjoy it safely. One Kendal school basically emptied, and dozens of its pupils walked down to watch the eclipse with us. Another school, from faraway Carlisle, packed a coach with kids and sent them down to Kendal to watch it with us.

However, elsewhere – and I’ve read reports of this happening in Devon, Wales, London and elsewhere – idiotic bloody Council pen-pushers and School Governers stopped excited, curious kids from watching the amazing eclipse, and locked them indoors and made them watch it on TV. One headmaster did it because he was panicking about “cultural and religious problems”. Other teachers clearly were just too bone effing idle to do a *little* research about safe ways to watch it, or couldn’t be arsed to contact their local astronomical society to ask them for help and advise. Shame on all of them. They stopped those poor kids from experiencing something magical, something which they would have remembered for the rest of their lives. It’s disgusting.

girl looking at computer monitor

For pity’s sake, we’re always being told by talking heads on TV how kids spend too *much* time staring at screens, how they’re living their lives staring at phone, tablet and TV screens instead of getting out into the real world to enjoy real life, and then when one of nature’s most wonderful events came along, and dropped on our doorstep, with not weeks or even months but YEARS of notice, offering schools and teachers a golden opportunity to show kids the mechanical workings of the solar system, to engage with science, to unplug from the Matrix and get out into the real world, some stupid idiots wasted it.

“Not having enough time to prepare” is nonsense – the exact date and time of this eclipse had been known about for many years, and many astronomical societies were organising and promoting observing events for weeks, even months beforehand. Likewise,  “no safety advice was available” is rubbish too – many astronomical bodies put safety advice online months in advice, as did well known astronomers, professional science writers and bloggers. Any teacher who could be bothered to do a Google search for “Eclipse+safety” would have been shown a list of web pages full of excellent advice. Try it for yourself, now, and you’ll see what I mean. The Society for Popular Astronomy produced fantastic FREE resources, including information sheets, web pages and even videos, explaining exactly how to watch the eclipse safely. Up and down the many country astronomical societies did the same, and/or organised public viewing events. Any that didn’t, and didn’t have a really good excuse, should be ashamed of themselves too; it was our responsibility to ensure as many people as possible saw and enjoyed the event. Seriously, get out of your chairs, step away from the projector and Get Out There And Show People Stuff!!

I know countless schools went to great lengths to make sure their kids were able to watch and enjoy the eclipse, and congratulations to them, because many of those kids will have had an existing interest in science deepened, and other kids will have been excited by science for the first time. Who knows how many of the children who watched Friday morning’s eclipse will go on to pursue astronomy as a hobby, or become involved in some other branch of science?

But others were denied that. And as the rest of the country celebrated a wonderful event they were locked inside, watching it on TV. That makes me furious, it really does.

There won’t be another solar eclipse visible in the UK until 2026, by which time all the kids who missed Friday’s spectacle will have left school, so they really did miss a once in a lifetime opportunity. But although there aren’t any more eclipses for many years, on May 9th next year there will be another event, involving the Sun, which will be observable from across the UK – a Transit of Mercury.

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(Image: Wikipedia)

On that day Mercury will appear to cross the face of the Sun as seen from Earth, which is known as a “Transit”. Silhouetted against the Sun, Mercury will appear as a tiny black dot on projected images of the Sun, or through telescopes fitted with filters. (It will be too small to see through eclipse glasses or with pinhole projectors – or colanders!) The event will take many hours, most of the day in fact beginning at 11am and ending at 5pm, so there will be no “maximum moment” to see or miss, as there was with the eclipse.

We have more than a year to prepare for this; more than a year to make sure that no schoolkids miss it; more than a year to ensure that parents, teachers, Governors, Council officials and everyone else knows how to help the kids under their care to watch the Transit safely and enjoy it.

Let’s make sure that next May no boy or girl who wants to see something amazing in the sky is forced to watch it on TV.

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