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Almost there…

So… here we are, Monday morning, and my increasingly-useful “PlutoSafari” app tells me New Horizons is 1 day 3 hours 0 minutes and 31 seconds away from its closest approach to Pluto. Tomorrow is going to be crazy, and if anything the day after will be even crazier, but today should be a relatively quiet day. We’ll see what happens, maybe they’ll drop some surprise images on us.

I spent a LOT of yesterday online, lurking in the corner of the internet like a spider (why the hell did I use THAT image? I hate spiders!!!), just following what was happening with the New Horizons mission from various directions and sources: Twitter was useful for following comments both from mission members and journalists/bloggers/reporters gathered at NH mission control in advance of and during a press Q&A in the evening; Facebook was good for keeping an eye on astronomy people not at mission control but equally excited by the mission; space exploration forums were useful for following the feverish speculation going on about what the images are showing. Some people are predicting geysers or shiny ice, others are expecting to see hints of clouds hovering above Pluto’s limb… it will be fascinating to see how many of these theories pan out.

After my day of lurking, I stayed up late last night in anticipation of a new image being released, but at around 1am I think it was the team said they wouldn’t be releasing any images “until tomorrow” – which is today – so I turned off my phone, tablet and laptop, all of which I’d been using during the day, and headed to bed –

– only to find when I got up this morning that the sneaky little blighters had released some new images overnight after all, and it was catch-up time!

One of the images was of Charon, Pluto’s largest moon…

charon new crop

As soon as I saw that I thought “oooh, craters!” because you can clearly see two round, dark features with bright ‘aprons’ around them, one down at the bottom and centre of the disc, the other over on the right about halfway up. And, even more exciting, at the three o’clock position there is what looks very much like a canyon of some sort…!

The press release that went with the release of the images confirms that, and offers up some fascinating analysis of the image from the New Horizons team:

New Horizons’ newest images reveal Pluto’s largest moon Charon to be a world of chasms and craters. The most pronounced chasm, which lies in the southern hemisphere, is longer and miles deeper than Earth’s Grand Canyon, according to William McKinnon, deputy lead scientist with New Horizon’s Geology and Geophysics investigation team.

“This is the first clear evidence of faulting and surface disruption on Charon,” says McKinnon, who is based at the Washington University in St. Louis. “New Horizons has transformed our view of this distant moon from a nearly featureless ball of ice to a world displaying all kinds of geologic activity.”

The most prominent crater, which lies near the south pole of Charon in an image taken July 11 and radioed to Earth today, is about 60 miles (96.5 kilometers) across. The brightness of the rays of material blasted out of the crater suggest it formed relatively recently in geologic terms, during a collision with a small Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) some time in the last billion years.

The darkness of the crater’s floor is especially intriguing, says McKinnon. One explanation is that the crater has exposed a different type of icy material than the more reflective ices that lie on the surface. Another possibility is that the ice in the crater floor is the same material as its surroundings but has a larger ice grain size, which reflects less sunlight. In this scenario, the impactor that gouged the crater melted the ice in the crater floor, which then refroze into larger grains.

A mysterious dark region near Charon’s north pole stretches for 200 miles. More detailed images that New Horizons will take around the time of closest approach to the moon on July 14 may provide hints about the dark region’s origin.  

With a bit of tweaking in my various image processing programs I got this…

collage charon july 13

Now, I’ll say again, I am NOT suggesting that the “processing” I do on images like this is scientifically accurate or even useful. There’s no fancy calibration process being used, or image registering, etc, I am genuinely just playing about with a half dozen photo processing software packages and websites to try and a) pull out more detail, and b) create images which look pleasing. So the image on the right there may have some image processing artefacts on it, it might not, I just think it looks striking, that’s all.

But what about Pluto itself..?

Overnight this was released into the wild by the NH team…

071215_pluto_alone_0

…and that is just eye-bulgingly good isn’t it? So much going on there… and with a bit of work, it became this…

Pluto July 13 collage

Ladies and gentlemen – Pluto, revealed at last… :-)

Just take a moment to think about what we’re seeing now. In 1930 Pluto was discovered on a pair of photographic plates. It looked exactly like it did through a telescope – a tiny dot. Today, we can see it as a world, with what look like an ice cap, craters, dark plains, and more, That’s how incredible a time and an event this is. Or, to put it another way…

collage then now c

Will end this post with my “best today” view of Pluto. Compared to what we’ll see soon this is fuzzy and crude and blurry, but it still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. More later!

pluto best new

Hello – and goodbye…

Late last night a new image of Pluto was released by the New Horizons team, and it was a bitter-sweet encounter. This is the photo…

nh-pluto-7-11-15

Why? Because that image shows probably *the* most fascinating features seen on Pluto’s surface so far – a quartet of dark… somethings… all spaced out in a line. “But isn’t that a good thing?” I hear some of you asking. Yes, well, it is… they’re intriguing, and have been ever since our first much blurrier glimpse of them a little while ago… but the bad news is that we won’t be seeing them again, not from New Horizons anyway. I tweaked the image a little to make them stand out more clearly…

v2b

Isn’t that wonderful? (the image, not my tweaking, ha!). Look at them all lined up, like a cat walked across a freshly-laid path, leaving paw-prints in the cement. This is the Charon-facing side of Pluto, which means it will be hidden from view during the fly-by, so this is the best view we we will have of those strange features during this mission, and until the next mission to Pluto, which probably won’t happen for several decades.

What are they? Speculation is, of course, rife amongst followers of the mission, Some think they could be methane lakes, like Titan has (unlikely for lots of sciency reasons). Others think they could be depressions filled with dark dust, blown there by the winds of Pluto. Hmmm… possible… but who knows? Others still wonder if they are just patches of darker, older ice. Well, maybe, but their secret will remain safe until we return to Pluto, which might not be in our lifetimes (unless you’re a 7 year old reading this).

Ahhh, damnit

It would be handy if New Horizons could just slam on the brakes and go back for another look, but that can’t happen. Her course is locked in, and as the great man said…

laws+of+physics1334204511

…so onwards New Horizons will scream, heading towards Pluto and her date with history.

But never mind, even though it does, to be honest, look rather less exciting than this side, I’m sure the side of Pluto NH *will* see in detail will be just as fascinating. After all, we’re only seeing it in low resolution blurriness at the moment, and there could be all sorts of wonders and weird stuff just waiting to be seen yet! I mean, if you looked at Europa at such low resolution you would have no idea of how bizarre and fascinating its surface is, and the same goes for Ganymede too…

collage collage2

(Please note, before anyone leaves a comment, that I *know* that is not an accurate comparison… different sizes, different albedoes etc, I’m just Making A Point, ok?)

There are now less than two days, TWO DAYS to go until New Horizons flies past Pluto, and the excitement is really building. You’ll be relieved to hear I managed to get out of the flat and stock up on those tea bags and biscuits I talked about, and I’m now ready for the big day and those on either side of it, too. There should be at least one more new pic tonight, even sharper and clearer still, so looking forward to that. In the meantime, to end this post with as we ponder what might have been, here’s a (purely for fun, as usual) colourised view of the face of Pluto we won’t see again for a long, long time…

v2cb

Pluto starts to swim into focus…

20150711_081948

Yesterday the New Horizons team released a pair of images which set the space enthusiast community alight, and excited everyone following the mission. They weren’t images of Pluto itself, but “behind the scenes” pictures of some of the team gathered around a laptop, reacting to their first glimpses of the latest images of Pluto to come back from the probe…

1st close up

After my initial “What are you looking at??? Turn the laptop around, I want to see too!!!” reaction, a few things struck me about those images. Firstly, the sheer joy on their faces as they view those images. They aren’t just scientists, they’re space enthusiasts, just like us. They are having the time of their lives, aren’t they? They are exploring, seeing new things, making discoveries which will re-write the astronomy books and change the way we view the outer solar system forever and they are as giddy as kids on Christmas Day morning seeing their presents stacked under the tree. Secondly, they’re not standing beneath some huge ARMAGEDDON-like screen in cliche hands-on-hips superhero scientist poses, they’re clustered around a laptop, just a laptop, like yours or mine – well, ok, probably a lot more powerful and expensive than mine, but you know what I mean! – and looking at images their spacecraft has taken, just like you or I would look at pictures we’ve taken on holiday. I love that!

But what WERE they looking at? When those images appeared I couldn’t resist guessing…

1st close up

…but late last night the real reason for their excitement was revealed, when the latest image of Pluto was released to the world. If you haven’t seen it already, brace yourselves…

we have geology

Wow… look at that… we can now see SURFACE DETAIL ON PLUTO!!! As the team declared in its press release… “Houston… we have geology!

Looking at that image, even in its raw form, a lot of things are obvious. Firstly, Pluto is no flat, boring body. It has features on its ancient surface, areas of starkly-contrasting light and dark and, even more exciting, topography. There are shapes visible on that image, lines and circles and that hexagon… thing… on the left. With a bit of tweaking (NOT done in any scientific way, I hasten to add, just messing about with levels and contrast etc to bring out details and emphasise features, etc) the view becomes even more dramatic…

pljuly10

Oh, look at that…. isn’t that beautiful??? :-) :-) There’s SO much going on there… the boundaries between the light and dark areas are very sharp and clear… that hexagon… thing… really stands out… are those *craters* along that band in the middle…? Can’t wait to see the next images, which will be even clearer!

So, NOW we know why the New Horizons team was looking so happy in those pictures: they had just become the first people, in history, to see details on the surface of Pluto.

And the best thing is they’re letting us look over their shoulders.

If you want to see the images of Pluto being taken by New Horizons – not live, of course; the scientists have to get first look, that’s only fair! – you can go to a website and just see them. No registration required, no logging in, no terms or conditions, you can just see them. And then, if that’s your thing, you can play about with them – sorry, skilfully enhance and process them to bring out any particular details or features that catch your eye, or turn them into animated gifs, or 3D anaglyphs, all sorts of things. That’s what I do, to a degree, but just for my own amusement and use in my outreach work really, others do it soooo much better than me. In this way the New Horizons team is following in the footsteps of other NASA missions, especially the Mars rovers (all of them) and CASSINI, and as well as being a very generous thing to do it just makes sense: space missions like these aren’t cheap, and they’re basically paid for by tax-payers, so why WOULD you want to stop the people who pay for the photos to be taken from seeing them? That would be crazy, right?

Well, not everyone thinks that way, sadly. Even though every day now, Every Day, without paranoid ramblings about “proprietary periods” or the need to “preserve science” the New Horizons team is happily – almost giddily – releasing new images of Pluto, inviting the world to share in their joy of discovery and the thrill of exploration, allowing us all to feel part of this historic adventure, the OSIRIS team on the European Space Agency ROSETTA mission continues to horde its images, sharing them with a select number of scientists when they feel like it while refusing to let the media or the public, which paid for them to be taken, to see them. In contrast, the mission’s NAVCAM team is releasing images daily, and now has an archive of *thousands* of images available to browse. Additionally, the ROSETTA mission outreach team has done a fantastic job, and continues to do so, and ROSETTA scientists like Matt Taylor and Emily Baldwin  are brilliant ambassadors for the mission and ESA. As an organsation, ESA is supporting the mission enthusiastically, so I wonder how they feel about the people in charge of the most advanced camera onboard their history-making space-probe behaving like selfish children who won’t share their toys? It’s just shameful and shocking that the OSIRIS team, which promised us regular releases in the run-up to the probe’s arrival, is behaving in the way it is, which is to have a total disregard, even contempt, for the modern way of doing things, which helps the public to feel involved in the missions they pay for through their taxes. I just can’t get my head around it.

skeleton-at-keyboard

As we all drool over the latest images of Pluto (you know, I found myself smiling and shaking my head in disbelief when I wrote that… ‘…the latest images of Pluto’!! haha!!!) the contrast between Old Space (OSIRIS) and New Space (New Horizons) could not be starker or more shaming. In years to come I have no doubt that the way the OSIRIS team has behaved will be cited as a textbook example of how not to participate in a mission. In lectures, Powerpoint presentations and theses for years to come, people will use OSIRIS as the classic example of how to undermine the space agency behind a mission and alienate the public. Such a shame.

Although I would *never* personally condone such a thing, *obviously*, I can’t help but wonder what would happen if one of those darling little Korean or Russian hackers, who takes such perverse delight in writing their pain in the arse computer viruses, are space enthusiasts, and wondering what would happen if their curiosity got  the better of them and they turned their attention towards the OSIRIS servers, releasing some of the poor images of 67P cruelly being held hostage there, chained to radiators in the OSIRIS HQ basement…

So, again, although I’ve said it before, here on my blog and in personal messages to the team, a huge THANK YOU to Alan Stern and the New Horizons team for allowing all of us to share in their excitement and joy at this historic time. Thank you for allowing us to stand beside you as you reveal Pluto in all its bizarre geological glory. :-)

I think we forget sometimes how lucky we are to be alive at this incredible time. Unless we do something stupid and blow ourselves up, or exterminate ourselves with some virus or other, in centuries to come people will see Pluto and its moons – and the other worlds and moons in our solar system – in person, marvelling at them either on their surfaces or through the windows of their spacecraft. It’s easy to think about that and envy them, to kick angrily at the dirt and grumble “I wish I lived a hundred years in the future, when the world was more like Star Trek…” but I was thinking about this just yesterday, after a successful trip into town to see if the model attached to the cover of the latest issue of the bi-weekly “Star Trek – The Official Starships Collection” magazine was worth buying. Some weeks they are – a model of one of the classic ships – and others they’re not, like when the model is of some can’t-remember-ever-seeing-that Kazon supply ship or A Gorn toilet scow or something like that, but I always enjoy the anticipation of going into WH Smiths and looking at the dump bin by the front door, just in case there’s a ST mag in it with something worth buying attached to its cover. It’s a bit like a sci-fi lucky dip or scratch card. So, yesterday I went in, and yes, there was a new issue of the magazine… I picked it up –

YES!!!!! GET ***IN*** there!!! It was the starship I’d been waiting for…

Snapshot_20150711

And the model that was on the cover…

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There she is… a thing of beauty… NCC 1701… the original Constitution class Enterprise. I have wanted a model of her ever since I was a child, and never managed it. Now I have one, and she has taken her place alongside her sister ships in the fleet next to my computer…

20150711_115117_resized

Why am I twittering on about Star Trek star-ships? Well, after I had sat staring at and playing with my new scale model for half an hour, it set me thinking, imagining a far future when an organisation something like Starfleet could well be flying sleek star-ships to faraway suns, and as I found myself wishing that I could be alive in a future like that, not for the first time, it suddenly hit me that even if I was alive at that time I probably would be no better off than I am now; it would be very unlikely for me to be one of the people “out there”, travelling to and exploring those ‘strange new worlds’. For one thing, the future simply won’t be like it is in Star Trek. Let’s be honest here: the Star Trek universe is basically an idealised hippy-trippy Haight Ashbury tree- and dilithium crystal-hugging utopia where no-one has a *real* job, and everyone is rich and free enough to float from planet to planet wearing the latest designer fashion and spouting New Age platitudes. Come on, the real future won’t be anything like that, will it? Star travel will be hugely, obscenely expensive, and only a chosen few will get to do it for the first half dozen generations of interstellar travel. That means the odds of someone like me being able to “get out there” and sight-see are vanishingly small. Think about it. To have the chance to do that I would have to apply to join “Starfleet” or whatever it was called, then be accepted, then complete all the training, and then I might get assigned to a ship that would go on one of the glamour missions, the missions of true exploration. Far more likely that even if I did graduate from Starfleet I would barely scrape through my exams and end up as a tablet-tapping clerk on some milk run between Earth and Titan. And if I didn’t manage that, if I flunked my classes, I would be stranded Earthside, in a normal job, and would have to make do, like everyone else, with seeing pictures and videos of all the fantastic planets, their cities and inhabitants the Starfleet elite were seeing in person – as I said, not really any better off than now!

No. The internet is my Enterprise, and NASA is my Starfleet.

So, as much as I love Star Trek, I’m happy to be sitting here on this dull Saturday in Kendal in July 2015, with the cat stretched out and snoring beside me, my laptop on my knee, listening to “The Wall” while I swoon over the latest images of Pluto and look forward to the coming few days. Ages ago I booked Tuesday and Wednesday off work so I could follow the fly-by properly, as it happened, and not have to catch upon events after they had happened, so come Monday night I’m going to make myself a cosy little nest here, settle down, and drink in every historic minute of it. Some of the highlights on NASA TV (UK times) will be:

Monday, July 13

4pm – 5pm – A “Media Briefing”, with a Mission Status report and “What to Expect” guide.

THE BIG DAY!!! Tuesday, July 14

12.30 – 1pm – “Arrival at Pluto Countdown Program

From the NASA TV schedule: “At approximately 12.49pm, New Horizons is scheduled to be as close as the spacecraft will get to Pluto, approximately 7,800 miles (12,500 kilometers) above the surface, after a journey of more than nine years and three billion miles. The moment of closest approach will be marked during the live NASA TV broadcast that includes a countdown and discussion of what’s expected next as New Horizons makes its way past Pluto and potentially dangerous debris.”

**** 1pm – 2pm– Media briefing, including a release of images ****

Wednesday July 15th

(Note to self: going to be a long, long day… best check coffee and snack supplies!)

01.30 – 02.15am – “Phone Home”, broadcast from APL Mission Control

NASA TV will share the suspenseful moments of this historic event with the public and museums around the world. The New Horizons spacecraft will send a preprogrammed signal after the closest approach. The mission team on Earth should receive the signal by about 02.02am. ( When New Horizons “phones home,” there will be a celebration of its successful flyby and the anticipation of data to come in the days and months ahead.

02.30 – 03.00am – Media Briefing: New Horizons Health and Mission Status

And then, in the evening, the biggie…

**** 8 – 9pm Media Briefing:Seeing Pluto in a New Light” ****

Release of close-up images of Pluto’s surface and moons, along with initial science team reactions.

Right….off to Iceland to buy some coffee, tea bags, Nik Naks and chocolate biscuits. Going to be a long, and exciting, few days…! To finish off with, a look at some recommended sites to bookmark for the adventure ahead…

New Horizons picture gallery

New Horizons website

New Horizons Flyby Countdown

Where Is New Horizons?

Realtime New Horizons simulator

Emily Lakdawalla’s blog

“PlutoSafari App”

If you’re on Twitter, follow the hashtag #PlutoFlyby, and @NewHorizons2015 | @NASANewHorizons | @AlanStern for information and updates as the encounter proceeds.

Full ahead to Pluto..!

7-8-15_pluto_color_new_nasa-jhuapl-swri

Look at that… wow… The long wait is almost over. With just a few days left to go ( how many, exactly? Well,  there’s a really useful online countdown clock here… ) until the New Horizons probe screams through the Pluto system, the world seems to be going Pluto crazy! But that shouldn’t be surprising: the images coming back from the probe now are are waaay better than any taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, and you can see from the latest image, above, that New Horizons can confirm what Hubble hinted at – that Pluto is a fascinating world, with bright areas and dark.

Many people are commenting how similar Pluto looks, from New Horizon’s present distance and at this limited resolution, to what Mars looks like through a small telescope…

2014-03-26-Mars91103fromClark

…which is all very well and good, but we want to know what Pluto is REALLY like, don’t we? Let’s look at that image again, this time tweaked a bit, just for fun…

7-8-15_pluto_color_new_nasa-jhuapl-swri c

We want to know what craters, landforms and features – if any – are hiding in those simple light and dark areas, just waiting for New Horizons’ cameras to pick them out. It won’t be long until we see them, I think. Every day’s images are a little clearer than the last, and soon we’ll be seeing Pluto in much sharper detail.

In the meantime, let’s look ahead to what will be happening next week as New Horizons approaches and passes Pluto. Obviously there will be pictures everywhere – including here – but what will you be able to see *live* online? Is there going to be anything you can watch at the time?

Thankfully the answer is yes – NASA TV will be broadcasting New Horizons updates and press conferences regularly from the start of next week. Here’s the schedule, with times converted from ET to British Summer Time for you (if you’re in the UK…)

NEW HORIZONS NASA TV COVERAGE TIMES

July 8 – 10
4.30pm – Final approach to Pluto; daily mission updates on NASA TV

July 11 – 12
4.30pm – Final approach to Pluto; live mission updates on NASA TV

Monday, July 13
4pm – 5pm – Media briefing: Mission Status and What to Expect; live on NASA TV
Tuesday, July 14
12.30 – 1pm – Arrival at Pluto Countdown Program; live on NASA TV

At approximately 12.49pm, New Horizons is scheduled to be as close as the spacecraft will get to Pluto, approximately 7,800 miles (12,500 kilometers) above the surface, after a journey of more than nine years and three billion miles. For much of the day, New Horizons will be out of communication with mission control as it gathers data about Pluto and its moons.

The moment of closest approach will be marked during the live NASA TV broadcast that includes a countdown and discussion of what’s expected next as New Horizons makes its way past Pluto and potentially dangerous debris.

1pm – 2pm– Media briefing, image release; live on NASA TV

 

Wednesday July 15th

01.30 – 02.15am – NASA TV program, Phone Home, broadcast from APL Mission Control

NASA TV will share the suspenseful moments of this historic event with the public and museums around the world. The New Horizons spacecraft will send a preprogrammed signal after the closest approach. The mission team on Earth should receive the signal by about 02.02am. ( When New Horizons “phones home,” there will be a celebration of its successful flyby and the anticipation of data to come in the days and months ahead.

02.30 – 03.00am – Media Briefing: New Horizons Health and Mission Status; live on NASA TV

8 – 9pm Media Briefing: Seeing Pluto in a New Light; live on NASA TV

Release of close-up images of Pluto’s surface and moons, along with initial science team reactions.

————————————————————————————————–

I’ve taken next Tuesday and Wednesday off work so I don’t have to miss a moment of The Big Day. So I’ll be sat here with my laptop on my knee, and probably the cat on my shoulder or chest, getting in the way. watching all the updates and media events as they happen, savouring every moment of this incredible adventure.

Finally for this time, if you have a smartphone, or a tablet, and you’re following the New Horizons mission, I can hugely recommend the “Pluto Safari” app…

https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.simulationcurriculum.plutosafari

 

Pluto – 1 week to go…

Well, we’re almost there. This time next week New Horizons will be whooshing its way through the Pluto system, and we’ll be just hours away from seeing that mysterious world in unprecedented detail. This is real exploration, real adventure, and many people – including me – are so excited about it we can barely sleep. What will NH see? Craters? Mountains? An ice cap? We’ll know next week, probably sooner because it won’t be long now until much sharper images start coming back from the probe.

Until then…

pluto meme1

Meeting Pluto…

boy reading book at the library

As a space mad kid, who much preferred to lurk in shadowed corners of dimly-lit school libraries rather than kick a ball around outside in the sunshine, I grew up in a world, and in a time, where the Earth was one of nine planets orbiting the Sun. The books I read in those libraries, and read again, and re-read over and over in the following years, all referred to a ninth planet. This most distant world from the Sun was always “faraway Pluto”, or “mysterious Pluto”, or “enigmatic Pluto, lurking at the edge of the solar system,” or something like that. And it fascinated me.

One of the very first astronomy books I ever read was this one…

ob1

And boy, was Patrick Moore ahead of his time (as usual) when he wrote this, with classic understatement…

ob2

And although that particular book didn’t, other books usually featured illustrations of Pluto as  Pluto as either just a circled dim star, or an artist’s impression of an icy landscape lit by a bright star. For most of my life Pluto has simply been a dot on a page, next to a few lines of vague text.

Here in Cumbria, surrounded by high green fells and countless vast, cold lakes, I grew up watching Star Trek, Thunderbirds, Blakes 7, The Sky at Night and COSMOS, with eight planets in my sky, up there, out there, and I ached to see them all.

And as the years passed, I did. Not personally, obviously – I never had the “Right Stuff” required to be an astronaut – but through the breathtaking images returned by Vikings, Voyagers, Magellan, Galileo, and the rest of the Earth Exploration Fleet. One by one the Earth’s sister worlds were visited, and re-visited, by space probes, and they became real places. The rocky inner worlds, Mercury, Venus and Mars, were all revealed to have their own mountains, valleys and plains. The outer worlds, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune were revealed to be enormous bloated gas bag worlds, circled by myriad moons, each with their own mountains, valleys and plains too. As I grew up I marveled as these worlds were revealed, one by one, as discovery followed discovery.

After becoming an amateur astronomer and learning the sky, I tracked down and looked at these worlds myself, either with my own naked eye, standing in a lonely park or lay-by somewhere on a clear night, or staring into the eyepieces of telescopes. I must have stood in my garden thousands of times, staring at the phosphorous spark of Venus blazing in the purple twilight, lantern-bright above the silhouetted church steeples of my town. I crump-crumped across the snowy playing field across the road to stand in a tree’s shadow, shaded from light pollution, to look at the ruddy spark of Mars glowing like a distant, hot coal above the faraway rooftops. I smiled as Jupiter and Saturn returned to my sky after long absences, yellow and gold stars crawling up from behind the fells.

DSC_2160-3

In time, I had telescopes of my own. Only small, low power instruments, but they were more than good enough to show me the phases of Venus, the ice caps of Mars, Jupiter’s raging storms and largest moons and Saturn’s beautiful rings. And although I couldn’t see them through mine, other, more experienced astronomers let me look through their far larger telescopes and see  the dim green and blue stars of Uranus and Neptune too.

But in all those years, Pluto, that faraway, enigmatic, elusive ninth world from those library books, spinning slowly and silently out there on the solar system’s edge, has remained unseen.

pluto_sri

Of course, I’ve seen pictures of it – the Hubble telescope has taken photographs showing vague but very real markings on Pluto’s surface (above) – but in the pages of all the books crammed onto my straining shelves over there, and in all the copies of ASTRONOMY, SKY & TELESCOPE, SKY AT NIGHT and ASTRONOMY NOW magazines have piled up here there and everywhere, Pluto has remained an indistinct, blurry… something. And through all the years and decades of my life, even as Pluto was reclassified as a “Dwarf Planet” (which I was furious about at the time but am over now), I’ve never seen it with my own eyes; no telescope I have ever owned has been powerful enough to resolve it, and somehow I’ve never managed to catch a glimpse of Pluto through any of the monster telescopes I’ve been around at the star parties I go to – wrong time of year, or their owners were busy looking at other things.

So, I’ve never seen Pluto. And it is a godawful itch I cannot scratch.

But in just under two weeks time now that itch will be well and truly scratched, when the New Horizons probe whooshes past Pluto, and arrows through its system of moons in a close encounter of the truly awesome kind. Then I, you, and everyone else will see Pluto in all its icy glory, and its long exile in ignorance and mystery will finally be over.

nh-surface

New Horizons’ encounter with Pluto has been a long time coming. The probe left Earth a decade or so ago and is only now approaching its target. Excitement is really building now as, with less than a fortnight to go until its flyby, the probe is finally sending back images of Pluto, and its largest moon Charon, far superior to the best photographs taken by Hubble. In fact, every picture of Pluto sent back now is The Best Picture Ever Taken Of Pluto. And best of all, the New Horizons team – following the example set by the teams behind the Mars rovers, and CASSINI – are releasing new images into the wild every day, allowing the world to join in with the mission, to share in the excitement of this historic event and to watch Pluto be revealed. As I said recently in an email to someone:

It’s fantastic for people like me to be able to join in with this incredible time of exploration and discovery! We all have, thanks to the generosity of the NH team, a front row seat for this event, and will see Pluto revealed as a new world almost in real time. It’s really like being a passenger on Columbus’ ship as he reached the New World, or walking beside Lewis and Clark as they crossed the United States, seeing new things, making discoveries every day.

And yes, of course I have to say it: this is in stark and shaming contrast to the attitude being taken by the OSIRIS team on the European Space Agency ROSETTA mission to Comet 67P, which continues to horde its images, effectively sticking two fingers up at the public who paid for their images to be taken, at everyone interested in science, young and old, who wants to follow the mission, and at ESA itself, which would no doubt love to have some of those images to promote the mission with. It’s ridiculous. While the rest of the world celebrates one of the most exciting years in the history of planetary exploration, delighting in almost daily new views of Ceres and Pluto, the OSIRIS team continues to skulk in its gloomy bedroom like a moody teenager, refusing to join the party.

Oh well. It’s their loss. History will judge them very badly for what they have and haven’t done.

Meanwhile, out here in the bright sunshine, where the rest of the world is partying like crazy, the same image enthusiasts who take the published images taken by the Mars rovers, Cassini and the NAVCAMs of ROSETTA are working their magic and sorcery on the New Horizons images and teasing tantalising details out of them. Some people are going a bit nuts, and pushing and processing the images until they beg for mercy, in the process artificially creating detail which isn’t actually there. But others, such as Bjorn Jonnson (first image below) and Ian Regan (second image below),  are more restrained and responsible, and thanks to them we now know that the Hubble images were accurate: Pluto is definitely a world of contrasting areas of light and dark.

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The raw images being released by the New Horizons team show this to be the case too, but the “image enthusiast” processed versions are showing a lot more detail than the “official” versions. One important note of caution tho: it’s tempting to over-analyse what these images show and to talk yourself into believing they absolutely show Pluto has features on its surface which you *want* it to have. Many people on seeing these images have cried “craters!” or “ice plains!” Some have even seen a polar cap topping the faraway world. But it’s way, waaaaay too early for NH to be able to pick out craters, even huge ones, and anyway the lighting angles are wrong at the moment too, so all we know for sure is that Pluto has light bits, and dark bits, and we’ll know soon what they are. As for that quartet of round features around Pluto’s equator, while many people are confidently declaring that’s a chain of craters, no-one actually knows what they are yet, or even if they are totally real and not, at least in part, the result of over-pr0cessing the publicly-released  images. We’ll know what Pluto really looks like – and how real these features are – soon.

So, here we are, a week and a half away from seeing Pluto properly for the first time, ten days away from seeing a whole new world swim up out of the inky blackness of space and Be Known. This is actually a first for me, I think – having a front row seat as a world is properly revealed for the first time, I mean. I was only 11 when the Vikings landed on Mars, just starting out in the crazy world of amater astronomy and space exploration, and caught up with those missions a few years later. When the Voyagers flew past Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune I was a lot more interested but like everyone else I had to rely on the limited media coverage at the time, which meant looking at a few images in the newspapers and on the TV news at the time, and months later buying special “image-packed” issues of SKY AND TELESCOPE and ASTRONOMY and watching special episodes of “Horizon” on BBC2, which I taped on a VCR and later used to make slides with for my Outreach talks by photographing the TV screen…

By the time the Mars rovers arrived at Mars, Galileo arrived at Jupiter and Cassini arrived at Saturn we knew those worlds pretty well, very well in fact. We had detailed maps of their surfaces, and to some extent their moons too. But this encounter is genuinely different. New Horizons will be showing us a whole new world in beautiful, breathtaking detail. And before anyone says “But what about Vesta, and Ceres, and <insert comet or asteroid name of choice here> ?” they’re fascinating, yes, but let’s face it they’re basically rubble, the builder’s mess left over from the construction of the solar system. Pluto is a world, a proper world. Some would say… still say… planet, but that debate has moved on I think, and while I would once have raged about its reclassification (and did!) I know just think “Pluto is Pluto…” and am just pleased it is being visited finally.

As I write this, 85 years after Pluto’s discovery, we have no idea what its surface looks like. The latest New Horizons images are confirming Hubble’s discoveries of light and dark areas, but what is actually DOWN there? Will New Horizons send us back images of ice-capped mountains casting shadows over plains of ice, dark as frozen coffee? In two weeks will we have pictures showing valleys meandering around and past craters with bright rays splashing away from them? Will we soon think of Pluto as an ice capped world, a world with wind-blown feathery streaks painted on its landscape, or even ice volcanoes on its limb? SO frustrating we don’t know yet, but so exciting too!

It’s hard not to feel like a kid on Christmas Eve, lying in bed in a silent house, wondering what’s beneath the tree downstairs, waiting for you in the morning…

And this is why I love astronomy so much – it fills me, every second of every minute of every hour of every day with a sense of absolute could-almost-cry-with-the-grandeur-of-it-all wonder at the size, the scale, the sheer beauty of it all. And that’s something only astronomers can “get” I think. Take last Tuesday night for example. After sunset on that evening, Venus and Jupiter could be seen close together in the twilight, barely <—– this —–> far apart. To see and photograph it, Stella and I stopped by the side of the road on a gravel patch between Cockermouth, where I’d been giving a talk, and Kendal, where I live. As the sky darkened the two planets came more and more clearly into view, a pair of stars shining so close together above the faraway hills you couldn’t slide a sheet of paper between them, it seemed. Through my telescope they were twin jewels dancing and shimmering and flashing with a hundred shifting shades of gold, silver and emerald as they sank slowly towards the horizon…

Venus & Jupiter June 30th 2015 label

And as we looked at them, smiling like Cheshire Cats, car after car drove past, oblivious to the stunning beauty just to their left, just above the hills. I wanted to jump into the road, flag them down, drag them out of their cars, spin them around to face the west and say “Look! Look at that! They’re worlds! The fainter one on the top is Jupiter, it could hold a thousand Earths and it has 63 moons…! And the brighter one, that’s Venus. Earth’s “evil twin”, a hell planet…” But I didn’t. The cars sped on, every one’s occupants unaware that the universe was putting on a show for them right outside their window.

I sometimes wonder, and worry, if my passion for astronomy has made me miss out on other things. I wonder, as I stand outside at 2am on a frosty night waiting for a shooting star to dash itself across the sky above me, if other people, “normal” people, who sleep 8 hours a night, are closer to their families than I am… if they enjoy sport, or films, or literature more than I do… I sometimes wonder, as I’m waiting in vain yet again for a noctilucent cloud display to begin on a balmy summer’s evening, if I’ve missed out on other things because of my infatuation with the cosmos. Even my partner laughingly… I hope… describes me as an “alien”…

But then I realise that all the “normal” people tucked up in their beds will never see the sky like I do, will never sense or appreciate their place in the universe like I do. If I have given up other things to fall in unrequited love with the universe, well, that is a fair price to pay, for I have stood laughing, turning around and around, laughing like a child, beneath a sky painted scarlet, crimson and ruby by the curtains, streamers and beams of an auroral storm so bright it cast shadows; I have sat in the centre of an ancient stone circle and watched a comet rise, tail first, behind snow-dusted mountains; I have stared up and seen fireballs falling from the heavens like shells in an artillery bombardment, flaring and flashing as they fell; I’ve taught probably tens of thousands of children about astronomy and space, opening their eyes to the wonders and the beauty of the universe, hopefully igniting sparks of inspiration and excitement in them that will stay with them forever, and maybe even lead to them becoming scientists themselves, making discoveries themselves; I’ve had my heart melt like chocolate as I knelt beside my telescope as a young girl, balancing on her tiptoes, peered into its eyepiece at a faint comet and turned to me, smiling, and whispered “It looks like a fairy… thank you…”. I go out on a clear night and I can *feel* the glories of the Cosmos all around me. That’s what “being into astronomy” has given me.

It’s like the ninth Doctor said in “Rose”…

Rose: Who are you?
The Doctor: [turns around] Do you know like we were sayin’? About the Earth revolving? [walks towards Rose] It’s like when you’re a kid. The first time they tell you that the world’s turning and you just can’t quite believe it ‘cos everything looks like it’s standin’ still. [looks at Rose] I can feel it. [takes Rose’s hand] The turn of the Earth. The ground beneath our feet is spinnin’ at 1,000 miles an hour and the entire planet is hurtling around the sun at 67,000 miles an hour, and I can feel it. We’re fallin’ through space, you and me, clinging to the skin of this tiny little world, and if we let go… [drops Rose’s hand] That’s who I am.

Now, I’m not comparing myself to a Time Lord! But it doesn’t matter where I am, or who I’m with, or how tired or anxious I feel; when I look up at a clear starry sky, while other people are just seeing a load of dots scattered above their heads I am looking out into an ocean of suns, great beacons of light. I can lift my hand to the sky and almost feel it tingling as the light and heat of galaxies billions of years old and billions of light years away brushes my skin, their faint starlight and radiation tanning it, just a little, just a little…

That’s what astronomy gives me. I Know what’s out there, and billions don’t. I know my place in the Universe, and billions don’t. I know and can feel the cosmos around me, stretching off in all directions, and billions don’t. And that’s why I want to know about Pluto. That’s why I NEED to know about Pluto. It’s one of the last pieces of the puzzle left to slot into place. It will make one more dot in the sky a real world, just like Mercury, Venus and all the others have done over the years. And that’s why this mission means so much to me.

It took a decade of hard graft, determination, stubbornness and sheer bloody mindedness for the New Horizons team to get to Pluto. They faced budget challenges, criticism from their peers, and more. Yet somehow, against all the odds, they got their beautiful golden spacecraft into space and hurled it towards Pluto and its date with destiny. As I write this, the New Horizons team is facing a new challenge – recovering their spacecraft from a glitch of some kind which put into “safe mode”, briefly cutting communications with Earth. Contact was re-established after more than an hour, but it must have seemed like years to the team. I’m sure all will be well – they’re amazing people doing incredible things with a wonderful machine – and the probe will make a full recovery. This was the scenario which was haunting me – NH going into Safe Mode as it swooped through the Pluto system, losing all the close approach data, so maybe it’s a good thing this has happened now. What a diva NH is… retreating into her dressing room and slamming the door behind her, insisting she needs some time alone before striding on stage and dazzling all her fans..!

As I said earlier, I’ve never seen Pluto, and I hate that. Hate it. I hope to see it in the summer – I’m crossing my fingers and toes and everything else that when I go to the Scarborough and Ryedale Astronomy Society’s starcamp in Dalby Forest in August,  someone there will kindly point their big Dobsonian cannon towards Pluto and show it to people, with a handy finder chart to compare with the view in the eyepiece – and I’m planning on attempting to photograph it with my iOptron star tracker once the nights get a bit darker, too. Until then, all I can do is stare at the sky to the left of the handle of the “teapot” of Sagittarius, and wonder what Pluto is like, just as I did (cough cough) years ago when I sat in that shadowy library corner, devouring that already-battered copy of the Observers Book Of Astronomy, reading Patrick Moore’s words over and over again.

What is Pluto really like?

We’ll all know soon.

Venus meets Jupiter in the June twilight…

Last night, finally, after approaching each other shyly for the past couple of months, Venus and Jupiter met in the evening twilight, for a close planetary conjunction. And after giving a talk to members of the Cockermouth Astronomical Society, Stella and I raced back south towards Kendal, hoping to find a good spot to photograph the conjunction. Thankfully Stella found us a perfect place – high up, with an unobstructed view to the west and a low horizon, so we set up there and watched the show. Here are some of the pictures we took…

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V J Jun 30c Venus & Jupiter June 30th 2015 label

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