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Stuart AtkinsonJuly 18, 2014

A right old comet kerfuffle…

This article originally appeared on Stuart Atkinson's blog and is reposted here with his permission.

If you have a passion for – or even just a passing interest in – space exploration, you’re probably aware that a robotic European Space Agency (ESA) space probe, “Rosetta”, is currently closing in on a comet. The comet’s full name is “Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko” but many space enthusiasts are shortening that to “Cherry Gerry”, or “Comet CG” or just plain “67P” (which is what I’ll call it here from now on, okay?) This is one of the most exciting space missions for a long, long time, because not only will the Rosetta probe take high-resolution images of the comet’s surface from August, but in November it will set a small lander, “Philae”, down on its nucleus, which will then send back the first ever pictures from the surface of a comet. Obviously this is a seriously giddying prospect, not just for planetary and cometary scientists, who have longed to see a comet’s surface properly for decades, but also for “armchair” space explorers, the countless tens (hundreds?) of thousands of people around the globe who live and breathe space missions, and spend hours looking at the images sent back from across the solar system. So as Rosetta closes in on Comet 67P a lot of people are getting very excited. Big missions like this, when something completely new is seen for the first time, don’t come along very often now.

Rosetta and Philae at the comet

ESA - C. Carreau / ATG medialab

Rosetta and Philae at the comet

There are lots of serious science questions for Rosetta to answer once she arrives. What is the comet made of? How much dust is coming off it? How old is it? In which part of the solar system did it form, all those billions of years ago? But let’s be honest, as exciting as this “hard science” will be, really, as the August 6th rendezvous approaches, everyone – professional scientist and “space geek” alike – is wondering the same thing: what will the comet nucleus look like up close? Will it have craters and dusty plains, like those seen on other comets in the past? Will giant boulders litter its surface? Will it have hills, or even mountains, casting stark shadows when the Sun slips behind them? What will we SEE?

Outside of the so-called “astronomical community” there is a lot of public interest in this mission too. It’s fair to say that promoting its missions, and engaging the public with those missions, is something ESA has been rather poor at in the past, but now they’re really doing well. For months now the European Space Agency team responsible for publicising and promoting the Rosetta mission has been doing an absolutely fantastic job, promoting Rosetta with competitions, multiple websites and countless Outreach activities and events, and thanks to their tireless efforts on social media the mission has a very solid presence on Twitter and Facebook. Scientists involved in the mission have been blogging about it too. This all means that Rosetta has probably the highest online presence of any ESA mission to date, a great achievement considering that the ESA Outreach team has had to do all this with a limited budget and a small number of people. They deserve huge congratulations for their efforts.

But money and manpower aside, their greatest problem has inevitably been a lack of actual pictures of the mission’s cometary target, 67P. The comet’s icy nucleus is so small, and has been so far away from the probe, that until this week it has looked like just a few pixels on a black background. A few days ago, with the gap between comet and probe shrinking daily, ESA put out “the latest” images of the comet, and although it looked larger than we had seen it before it was still just a blurry, smudgy… something. Tantalising views, certainly, but 67P was not looking much like a comet, to be honest.

Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko spins into view


Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko spins into view
This animation of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko was created from 36 images captured by Rosetta on June 27 and 28. The comet makes a revolution every 12.4 hours.

Then a couple of days ago, everything changed.

If you were online during Wednesday you probably felt a strange disturbance in the Force… as if thousands of space exploration enthusiasts suddenly cried out in delight, only to be suddenly silenced a short time later. Why? Because suddenly, out of the blue, apparently published by accident, new images of 67/P appeared online, and they were radically different from anything seen before…

Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko from Rosetta on July 11, 2014

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

Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko from Rosetta on July 11, 2014
As Rosetta approached its target comet, the shape of the nucleus was revealed to be a contact binary -- two unequal-sized objects in contact with each other. All together, the object is about 4 by 3.5 kilometers in size.

Memories of a confusing cluster of pixels were instantly banished as we all gazed at the strange object on our screens. Instead of looking like a single body, like a classic asteroid or comet, 67P looked like two bodies stuck together, or a single large body with two very distinct parts. Straight away astronomy journalists and armchair explorers alike were speculating that 67P might be what astronomers call a “contact binary”, which is a fancy way of saying “it’s made of two once separate bits which bumped together and stuck”. Great! Two comets for the price of one!!

But steady on. There are other possibilities. Maybe it’s a single body with a narrow waist, like a peanut, or the pictures are still of such low quality they’re giving totally the wrong impression But “contact binary” seems to be the most popular interpretation of the images so far. As ever, we’ll just have to wait and see…

Looking back, I think it’s fair to say that there was quite a mood of euphoria for a while that day, as those images – still blurry, but waaay better than anything we had seen before – spread across the internet like a brand new video clip of a sleeping kitten cuddling up to a puppy under a Christmas tree. After all the months of just seeing Rosetta’s target as a pixelated “What the hell is THAT??” blob, suddenly it was a very real, very solid object. “Look at that,” I thought, looking at the images on my phone, “67P is a real world…” Rosetta was going to explore and study a real world! Oh, yes, there was much rejoicing throughout the space exploration community -

But not, it seems, within ESA. The images had been released unofficially and prematurely. Soon they had vanished from the CNES webpage, rounded up and put back in their barns, and the sound of the doors slamming firmly shut behind them echoed across Europe. But it was too late. By then the images had been saved by countless space enthusiasts and were already being pasted into reports on numerous websites. The cat wasn’t just out of the bag, it was halfway down the street and had no intention of coming back…

Of course, ESA’s image cull prompted quite a response too. Twitter, Facebook and forums were soon groaning under the weight of varying opinions and reactions. Some people said “Ok, fair enough, they were released without permission, we should wait for the official release”. But others shook their heads in frustration, and disappointment, and thought gloomily “Here we go again – ESA is going to hold back images again…”

Again? Yes, again. You see, in the past – in stark contrast to NASA, which releases raw images from its Mars rovers and Saturn orbiter “Cassini” in real time, sometimes posting them on websites just hours after they were taken – ESA has been, shall we say, “reluctant” to let the public see more than a handful of images taken by its probes at the time they were taken. This has led to a lot of criticism and even anger. And, cards on the table here, it’s a policy which really, really hacks me off personally.

ESA has always answered that criticism by insisting that it was their policy to not release more images until the scientists working on the missions had had time to study them and do science with them. And ok, that’s fair enough; if you were a scientist who had dedicated years, if not decades of your career to a space mission, the last thing you want is to be “scooped” by non-scientists playing about with your images on their laptops while sat in bed in their pyjamas. How chuffed would YOU be if someone tapping away on their tablet spotted something interesting on one of YOUR photos before YOU’D had a chance to look at it properly..?

But looking at it from the other side, many ask if it’s fair for ESA to hoard its images in this way when those images are paid for with public money. European governments fund ESA, and Governments get their money from taxing their citizens, so while a lot of private money goes into them – space exploration is big business across Europe, and many hi-tech companies have invested huge amounts of money in it – every ESA mission is paid for, at least in part, out of money taken from hard working people’s wage packets. Surely the people who pay for the images to be taken have the right to see them – not all of them, but at least a good number of them – when they are taken? At a very fundamental level, how can it be fair for ESA to hoard their images on their hard drives when there are thousands and thousands of people desperate to see them – people who paid to have those images taken in the first place?

These aren’t just my arguments, by the way. These points are made so often about ESA missions that they’ve become a bit of a thorn in the space agency’s side and they can’t ignore them anymore. And by yesterday evening one of the Rosetta team had put out a very detailed and honest blog post, again explaining the Rosetta (and general ESA) image release policy. Basically it just repeats the familiar arguments about ESA scientists needing time to study the images before they are released, and ends by saying, in as many words, “Hey, don’t blame us; this way of doing things was agreed by the countries who contribute money to ESA. It’s just the way things are…”

Yeah, well, sorry to be rude, but “the way things are” sucks. It needs to change. Because if ESA drip feed the public Rosetta images after spending all these months – and a lot of money – building up public excitement and expectation through all that brilliant Outreach work, they’re not just going to look selfish, but they’re going to risk losing a lot of the goodwill they’ve built up too.

Yesterday ESA officially released “the latest” images of 67P, which were put into an animation to show it rotating…

Rotating view of comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko on 14 July 2014

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

Rotating view of comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko on 14 July 2014
On July 14, 2014, Rosetta's OSIRIS camera captured these 36 images of the rotating nucleus of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The original images contained only about 20 to 30 pixels across the comet's disk; they have been substantially enlarged here, so fine details are more likely to be artifacts than actual features. The images do suggest that the comet may consist of two parts: one segment seems to be rather elongated, while the other appears more bulbous.

…and although they show only a little more detail than the “bootleg” images released the day before – even though some people claim to have brought out surface detail in the photographs using image processing software, the comet and probe are still so far apart that actual surface features can’t be resolved yet – in a way that doesn’t matter. What matters most at the moment is that the comet’s bizarre shape has been revealed. Look at the images yourself and you’ll appreciate why it has been compared by many people to a “Rubber Duckie” (or just plain old “Rubber Duck” as we call them here in the UK, without that “Duckie” nonsense! :-) ) , and that rather irreverent nickname appears to be popular amongst science writers, too.

So, the excitement is definitely building. From now on every new set of images will show more and more detail, and it won’t be long before the Rosetta scientists will have good enough images to enable them to begin charting and naming features like craters, mountains and valleys on the comet’s surface. But it seems that we will have to wait for those images too. Everything coming out of ESA in the wake of “Rubber Duckie Gate” suggests that ESA is sticking to its guns and is only going to release images of 67P in spurts.

It may be a week until we see any more Rosetta images, which is quite ridiculous in my opinion. I actually feel quite mad thinking about that.

But why do I feel so strongly about this? After all, people like me have no God-given right to see the images taken by Rosetta or other space probes. Well, that’s true, but as one of those aforementioned “armchair explorers” – and also a very active “Outreach Educator”, who regularly gives illustrated talks on space and astronomy to public groups – I think it’s only fair I be allowed to see them, and use them.

“Yes, Stu,” I hear some of you sighing, “but WHY???”

Well, whilst I obviously recognise the value and importance of the hard science returned by space probes and missions – you know, the squiggly-lined graphs, Powerpoint charts and bizarre, Rorschach test-like splodges of chemical composition and spectroscopy readings – to be perfectly honest, my passion is for images, or “pretty pictures” as they’re often dismissed. I think this is because of my background as an amateur astronomer, children’s astronomy writer, and Outreach worker. I enjoy standing in a muddy or frosty field on a dark night and actually looking up at the stars, bathing in the light of the Milky Way as it arches overhead. I love staring into the eyepiece of my small but trusty 4.5” reflecting telescope and seeing Saturn’s rings, the Moon’s craters and Jupiter’s four largest moons for myself. I delight in standing in front of a room full of people, young or old, and showing them pictures of Valles Marineris, the icy landscape of Titan or the Earth rising above the charcoal-black limb of the Moon. I’m a visual person, guilty as charged. I’m sure others go all weak at the knees when they see a graph or a chart but for me a picture is worth a million graphs or charts, never mind a thousand words.

And I’m not alone feeling that way. There are millions of people just like me “out here”, and more “space enthusiasts” are taking part in the exploration of space from their school desks, office chairs or bedrooms every week, via the internet.

Which is why I have such a problem with ESA’s image release policy. It’s a dinosaur policy, drafted in the pre-internet world, when, to be honest, it didn’t matter if images were released promptly or not because the vast majority of the general public really didn’t give a monkey’s about what the wild-haired space boffins holed up in their labs got up to. There was hardly any science on TV, or in the newspapers or magazines, or at least nowhere near as much as we enjoy now. In those days probably only a few tens of thousands people around the world waited breathlessly to see the Voyager images of Jupiter, or the Viking images of Mars. In many ways it was a science-starved world.

Well, we don’t live in that world any more, despite what some people involved with ESA apparently think. Today huge numbers of the public voraciously devour science, and want to participate in the great adventures taking place out there. Unable to physically go along for the ride, they are happy instead to follow the missions online, regularly checking their websites, blogs, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. Each FB post, each Tweet, each link clicked on makes them feel that little bit more connected to those missions, and happy to support future (expensive) missions too.

Now let me state here very clearly, so no-one accuses me of having anything personal against ESA, that I am very proud of the European space program and all it has achieved. I’ve grown up with the successes of Hubble, Huygens, Mars Express, Giotto and other ESA missions. They’re all fantastic achievements, and have given space science just as much as NASA’s possibly more-famous flagship missions such as Voyager and the MERs. But my loyalty to ESA is not blind. I firmly believe ESA has to have a rethink here, and get a real grip on Outreach in the 21st century. It really, really needs to do better.

I’ve already acknowledged that ESA has nowhere near the Outreach resources NASA does, and I’m not suggesting it tries to catch up. What I am suggesting is that they do better with what they have, and at least try to make sure people “out here” are more involved in their space missions and are allowed to see the results of the programs they have paid for. To put it plainly, ESA needs to become more generous with its images, because – in my opinion – at the moment, by withholding images like it does, it comes across as cold and detached from the very people who fund and support it.

ESA simply has to become more aware of the importance and value of releasing images into the public domain as quickly, and as freely, as possible. Today ESA – like NASA – has countless websites, and those websites frequently display images taken by space-probes during encounters and fly-bys etc, and when they appear they’re always gorgeous and brilliant and right-click saveable. But compared to NASA, ESA seems to drip feed the public, and the media, its images, almost as if it begrudges sharing them sometimes.

Actually, if you dig a little deeper it becomes clear that the problem seems to lie not with the Agency itself, but with some of the scientists in charge of the instruments involved or the missions themselves. They’re still living in the Dark Ages; they just don’t “get” that releasing their images into the wild is A Good Thing. Each image has to be prised from their hands, which is not good, not good at all.

Again, I have to stress that I have no bad will towards ESA. Far from it; I know from the email correspondence I have enjoyed with many ESA scientists in the past, and from my daily interactions with them now on both Facebook and Twitter, that they are hard-working, dedicated, and enthusiastic people who love sharing their successes with the wider world. I’m sure many of the Rosetta team would love to see more of its images being enjoyed “out here” by members of the public. But there is a serious problem somewhere within ESA that is letting them down, and needs addressing. And that problem seems to me to be that some of the people in charge of ESA missions don’t “get it” that space science isn’t just for space scientists any more, it’s fascinating to a growing number of ordinary people too, and these are the same people who fund ESA’s ambitious and successful – and unsuccessful – missions through their taxes.

I honestly think Rosetta’s historic comet rendezvous demands changes in ESA’s image release policy.

And come on, it has to change, because the world has changed. I’m not sure if the people guarding the gates of the Rosetta image vaults even know this, but Out Here there is now an energetic and thriving community of space enthusiasts who have amazing image manipulation talents and skills, who will happily spend hours and hours taking the raw images and, by enhancing them, adding colour, stitching them together and generally tweaking them, turn them into quite amazing celestial portraits.

And the key word there is “raw”. The images we want to see are the untouched ones, the grainy, blurry, speckly artefact-riddled images returned by space probes which the mission scientists then calibrate and clean up and turn into useful, hard data, data they then work with to write their papers and advance their careers. I seriously question the ESA concerns that its scientists can be “scooped” by enthusiasts working on such raw images because apparently NASA doesn’t have any problems with this. In fact, NASA openly encourages people to become involved in its missions by posting raw images taken by its Mars rovers and Saturn-orbiting Cassini probe online as soon as they can. NASA is happy, for the most part, for people sitting in their pyjamas or on trains to take the raw images and use them to create new and beautiful works of art for everyone to enjoy.

ESA needs to embrace this philosophy too, if it is to connect better with the public and ensure their support for its missions continue, especially in this difficult time of austerity. Even I sometimes find it very hard to justify the money spent on space exploration when so many people don’t have enough to eat, or a roof over their head. The answer to such criticism is to ask people to consider The Bigger Picture, to explain to them that space exploration enriches us all and adds to our knowledge. Proving that is hard, very hard, but showing a jaw-droppingly gorgeous picture of an achingly-blue martian sunset, or Earth glinting like a sapphire beneath Saturn’s glowing rings, or an asteroid tumbling through the darkness of space can help enormously. People don’t “get” scientific diagrams. I’ve yet to hear the audience at one of my talks let out an appreciative sigh when shown a Powerpoint slide of a spiky graph showing the changing seasonal rate of methane production on Mars. But put up an image of Earth taken from space, glowing, burning bright blue against the blackness of the void like a fragile Christmas tree bauble and the response is amazing.

People like pictures. They can appreciate pictures. That’s why pictures are a space agency’s best asset. To take them and not make the most of them you possibly can is foolish.

As a space enthusiast and member of that public I don’t ask for much. I don’t want to sit in on planning or funding or engineering meetings, or be sent thousand page reports or technical papers, or vote on spending and funding. I trust people at ESA to handle those things. But I want to see at least a good number of the pictures I’ve contributed to financially soon after they’ve been taken, instead of just gnawing on a few scraps thrown from the top table, long after they’ve gone cold. Personally I don’t think that’s unreasonable, is it?

I can’t help thinking – melodramatically, I know – that by keeping back images like it does, ESA’s behaving like a photographer that was paid – very well – in advance for photographing a friend’s wedding, then used that money to buy the most expensive camera he could find and spent hours taking pictures, only to hand over a handful of prints instead of the full album he promised, before walking away with the camera too…

It might sound selfish, me just wanting to see a picture of my favourite planet, or a comet, or whatever, but there’s a bigger picture here. It’s not just about me, it’s not even about us, the current space enthusiasts – it’s about the next “us”. Every time I give a talk in a school I try fan the flames of the kids’ interest in the hope that I’ll inspire one of them to go grab a book off a shelf and learn a bit more after I’ve gone. I’ve been giving school talks for (oh my god!!!) almost 30 years now, must have talked to many thousands of kids in that time, and hopefully some of them have gone on to study and work in science, maybe even space exploration, I don’t know. But it’s such a visual topic, space exploration, that it’s absolutely essential to have the latest pics to show the kids, or they won’t believe that space exploration is going on NOW, and wasn’t all finished in the days of Apollo, as they’re taught in history, I can’t stress that enough.

Steve Squyres, the man behind the fantastically successful Mars rovers, has said that he was inspired to enter a career as a space scientist by those famous Viking images of Mars. The same thing happened to me, only in my case the images were in a paint-stained copy of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC tossed into a corner of my art class and forgotten about until an inquisitive 16yr old found it and… um… sneaked it home to look at it in private.

I’ve still got it, over there on the “Mars” shelf of my bookcase. I have kept it all this time, even though it’s battered and faded now, because pictures are important. They speak to us. An amazing image – of anything, a crying child, a beautiful sunset, a comet seen by a passing space-probe – can reach out of our computer and TV screens, and up off our newspaper and magazine pages, and bury itself into our brains and hearts and never leave. ESA has to realise that the images it takes are treasures to be shared with everyone, as quickly and as fully as possible, not just because – despite what they think – they have an obligation to let the people who paid for those images to be taken see them, but because they have a chance to inspire and educate people with them too. I’m seriously not sure that the Outreach potential of ESA’s images is fully appreciated yet. Rosetta’s historic comet encounter should – has to be – the event which triggers changes.

I know that the situation within ESA regarding image release is much more complicated than it is in NASA. As I said earlier, ESA mission scientists are not obliged to share their data in the same way, and some prefer to withhold it from the public and the media until it has been analysed to within an inch of its life. The people behind individual instruments can demand data release delays too. But this attitude has to change, and the scientists and researchers involved in missions need to be made aware of how important a change to a more generous image release policy is.

Unfortunately I don’t think they’re going to make that change willingly; I think they’re going to have to be made to change.

How we get them to change, though, I don’t know. Echoing my own thoughts and concerns, a German astronomy enthusiasts have sent an open letter to ESA calling for a more generous Rosetta image release policy during the encounter with 67P – which is very appropriate seeing as many of the scientists involved in taking, and releasing, Rosetta images are German – but their appeal seems to have been shrugged off. So what else can we do? Well, on our Facebook pages and in our Tweets we can keep making the case for more images to be shared. We can keep this subject alive in our blog posts and forum discussions, too. Other than that, I don’t know.

One word sums it up, really: share. ESA needs to share what it does with the world better; if you put more images out more quickly, you can then just sit back and bask in the glow as the fruits of ESA’s labours are enjoyed, and celebrated, all around the globe. It’s not, um, rocket science.

ESA is a space agency to be proud of, and I am, but to be honest sometimes I don’t feel a part of it. Sometimes I feel like I’m not wanted by ESA. As much as I admire ESA’s programs, I actually feel more a part of NASA’s programs. I would really, really like that to change, and I think that a change to ESA’s antiquated image release policy would go a long way towards making a lot of people like me feel more a part of ESA. Just by being a bit more approachable and a bit more open to sharing, ESA could make many people like me even more proud of our space agency than we already are.

Throughout history comets have been seen as omens of evil. Wars, plagues and disasters have all been blamed on bright comets after they appeared in the sky, and even today many people believe comets are heralds of change and upheaval. Comet 67P will undoubtedly bring about great change and upheaval in the world of astronomy when Rosetta’s cameras and instruments have completed their studies, leaving us with a new understanding of the nature of these enigmatic icy bodies.

Let’s hope that 67P brings about change within ESA itself, too.

Read more: Rosetta and Philae, pretty pictures, comets, amateur image processing, comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko

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Stuart Atkinson
Stuart Atkinson

space enthusiast and amateur astronomer
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