Rosetta gets stoned

9 Oct comet67p_navcamfeb3

Last week saw a dramatic end to one of the most influential space missions in recent decades. At 11:19am GMT on September 30th the Rosetta spacecraft crash landed on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko to the cheers and jeers of scientists and engineers from the European Space Agency (ESA) and German Aerospace Center (DLR).

Back in early March 2004 spacecraft Rosetta, and assistant lander Philae, launched from the Guiana Space Centre in South America with a mission to map the surface and composition of Comet 67P.


After over ten years of transit, Rosetta finally rendezvoused with the comet in August 2014 having passed a number of asteroids and the planet Mars. Throughout the 720 million kilometre journey the spacecraft’s array of instruments were cataloguing data as well as gathering a library of 116,000 images.

Probe lander Philae created history when it detached from its carrier on November 12th 2014 and touched down after bouncing twice on the comet’s surface. Once located relatively unscathed at the bottom of a crater wall, Philae could begin to send vital data back to Earth via Rosetta. The probe pieced together the molecular structures of the comet’s atmosphere and soil for a further three days until its battery was depleted.

Rosetta continued its work after the loss of Philae and the spacecraft was able to relay important evidence for another 23 months. Evidence such as the signature of water vapour, making up some of the comet’s structure, was found to be vastly different to that on Earth. Bringing scientists to the conclusion that the globe’s oceans were not delivered via these types of objects.

After 12 years and 7 billion kilometres travelled it was time for Rosetta’s final farewell. Last Friday (September 30th) ground crew at DLR’s facility in Darmstadt, Germany deliberately drove the vehicle in to the comet it had been so closely monitoring.  Emotions were running high as the team awaited imagery and information of the declination.


Image courtesy of

Even now that ESA and DLR scientists have called an end to Rosetta’s career, the mission directors are saying there is so much more to come.

“We have only scratched the surface of the science, there is decades worth of data here.”
– Matt Taylor, Rosetta Project Scientist

A selection of spectacular images captured by Rosetta can be found on the ESA website.

Picture Perfect Pluto

2 Jul Charon as seen on Pluto

Mysteries of the solar system’s misfit planet may finally be solved this month as NASA’s New Horizons space probe approaches Pluto to shed light on the ex-planet we’ve left well within the darkness.

On July 14th 2015 Pluto’s eerie appearance will come into view and it is sure to astound us all.

Hurtling at over 9000 kilometres per hour, the New Horizons probe is near the end of its epic journey to view Pluto and it’s moon system like never before. The probe will soon finish its near decade long trip and finally fall within the orbit of this strange body to help us understand far flung dwarf planets and their neighbours.

What do we know?

At over 4.6 billion kilometres away and smaller than our moon, it is no wonder so little is known about this ex-planet that was eradicated from the big boys league in 2006.

What we do know is that it is extremely cold this far from the sun. Temperatures on Pluto can plummet to lower than -400 degrees Fahrenheit that’s -240 degrees Celsius.

This dwarf planet is thought to have up to 5 orbiting satellites close by but scientists believe this number could be significantly higher due to Pluto hanging over the edge of the extremely vast Kuiper Belt.

Currently we know Pluto’s atmosphere is comprised of the solar system’s usual elemental suspects, Nitrogen, Methane and Carbon Monoxide.

From previous distant observations we see Pluto as a dark yellow, almost sand coloured world, with white highlights across its surface which raises a number of questions regarding its exact composition.

Much like many of our other celestial friends Pluto is likely to be covered with craters caused by large scale impacts since its creation. Early observations have suggested that this world should be somewhat more scarred by heavy bombardments however, there is already a solution to this theory.

Large rifts on the surface of Pluto suggest dynamic geological processes including geysers, that could possibly be spewing liquid methane into the atmosphere, which could point to a warm planetary core.

What we don’t know

Possibly the most exciting thing about Pluto that scientists across the globe are speculating is, what will it look like? Many people have drastically different ideas about how the landscape of Pluto will look. Now, finally, with the help of New Horizons we can start to see the real face of this aptly named plutoid.

Clues to Pluto’s landscape may be shaped by possible past impacts and events. Pluto’s closets moon Charon is likely to have been created when the dwarf planet and another massive body collided in an almost cataclysmic event. Much like our own moons formation, this huge impact would have thrown out dust and debris away from these objects only to be captured by the gravity of the mostly still intact Pluto.

This event may have paved the way for an equatorial mountain range being formed much like we see in moons and planets throughout our local neighbourhood. Perhaps Pluto may harbour lakes of liquid neon or even giant ice fractures on its surface much like Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

Pluto’s Polar Regions may end up looking very similar to our own in aesthetics and could even consist of mountain high ice caps during seasonal frosts.

The possibilities are endless

As the New Horizons probe edges closer and closer to this distant world we will begin to see her a little clearer with every mile.

Working with one of NASAs most advanced telescopes and image capture systems it is highly likely New Horizons will be treating us to some spectacular views of the far reaches of our celestial neighbourhood.

We may finally now gain insight into one of the solar systems most bizarre bodies as well as improve our knowledge of all dwarf planets and the other thousands of Kuiper Belt objects.

[COSMIC BODIES] – Lost Worlds

20 Oct artist depiction of CFBDSIR 2149-0403

It is easy to lose something small, it might slip down the back of the sofa, or you might drop it on a night out but surely it is a lot harder to lose something the size of a planet?

Ok, well no one has lost anything quite this big, because well frankly it never belonged to anyone. I am, however, referring to rouge planets and their stars. These are huge wandering worlds slowly meandering across the universe perhaps looking for a parent star to take them into their protective care.

There is one particular lost world, which was only discovered in the winter of last year that has everyone in the planetary scientific community mystified.

This bizarre place does not have a name of yet but is known by its scientific designation: CFBDSIR 2149-0403. For the purpose of this article I would like to nickname it ‘Columbus’

‘Columbus’ lies about 100 light-years from us here on Earth and is about the size of 4-7 Jupiter’s. We judge exosolar planets on their comparable size to our biggest heavenly neighbour because, well, we have no comprehension on just how massive these spheres are. Temperatures on ‘Columbus’ get as hot as Mercury, reaching at least 700 Kelvin or around 425 Degrees Celsius.

It is highly likely that ‘Columbus’ was created in a gas cloud similar to the one that formed our solar system; it would have originally had a parent star to orbit around just as we do the Sun. Then after a few millennia the Planet would have been ejected of its orbit by a huge force, most probably another planet or even star.

Now this lonely domain is scheduled to spend the rest of its existence slowly rambling throughout the cosmos. Maybe ‘Columbus’ will get lucky and full into the orbit of a star big enough to hold its mass or maybe this planet’s fate lies in eventual vaporisation and destruction.

Scientists will continue to watch as ‘Columbus’ embarks on the next leg of its exploratory journey. Whilst it does they will also keep their eyes peeled for any other ambling orbs.

Tonight’s SuperMoon

23 Jun Tim Martindale

It has been an appalling Summer for skywatching this year. Unannounced rain and general overcast cloud cover has restricted us from viewing the heavens above this season. There is some hope for any keen amateur astronomers though and it comes in the form of our familiar friend the Moon.

Many of you would have gazed up at the shimmering disc in the sky, probably on many occasions too, but today is a special day for the Moon, the celestial body will come to its closets point on its orbit around us. Granted, this event is pretty common but nonetheless incredibly spectacular for anyone watching. There will be other SuperMoons in the future of course, in fact there is one due in July. However our cosmic neighbour wont be passing as close as it is time around.

The scientific name for this event is ‘Perigee Moon’ it marks the coincidence where a new or full Moon is at it’s closets proximity to the Earth. The Lunar surface will appear 30% brighter to us and 14% larger in the night sky. According to experts the best time to view this phenomenon is both at moonrise and moonset when it appears at its very massive.

The next SuperMoon of this magnitude wont be occurring until August 2014. So, weather permitting, keep an eye on the night sky this evening, you may just be surprised to see an old friend looking a little different.

Asteroid 2012 DA14’s Flirt with Earth

12 Feb 2012 DA14 (Getty Image)

The extremely close fly-by of an asteroid this week reminds us of just how vulnerable this world is. In a week where we all hold and cherish the ones we adore, we must also remember that we have come to love and depend on this planet and that we must also do our all to defend her.

Asteroid 2012 DA14 will pass our world this week, reaching its closest point on Friday 15th at around 19:30(GMT), coming in closer proximity than some of the satellites that orbit above us. This is the nearest any NEO (Near Earth Object) has come in history or at least recorded human history, zooming by at a height of 17,200 miles. That may sound like a large amount but that distance is 10 times closer than the circulation of the moon.

Covering half a football field Asteroid 2012 DA14 is relatively small in comparison to some wondering rocks out there but if it were to collide with another dense body, chaos and destruction would ensue. It is thought if this particular asteroid were to end up on a collision course with Earth that its fate would be similar to the asteroid that exploded in the ‘Tunguska‘ event over Siberia in 1908. Luckily 2012 DA14 is NOT on an impact trajectory with Earth nor is it likely to in the future. Of course this is not certain but scientists have been able to plot the rocky body’s course for the next few decades and note that we are safe for now.

NASA and other Space organizations are planning to assess and document all of 1,300 known potentially dangerous NEO’s. Modern technology allows us to calculate future courses of huge wondering rocks, it almost seems as though we have a Saint watching over us and letting us know when we are in danger.

In a week where people the world over celebrate St Valentines day by handing each other gifts depicting effigies such as Cupid, maybe the Pagan festival of Lupercalia rings more truthful.

Outlawed by the church centuries ago for being un-Christian, Lupercalia, is a festival marking purification and as a warning to evil spirits coming to plunder riches. It seems rather fitting then that such a heavenly event such as Asteroid 2012 DA14’s passing should coincide with Lupercalia. As a species we rely heavily on what our planet offers because well, we have nothing else, nowhere else.

Unfortunately asteroid 2012 DA14 will not be visible to the naked eye from Central Europe but perhaps that makes it that much more romantic, an object of such devastation can roam by freely, barely missing us and many are none the wiser. NASA have this base covered as they intend to research future fly-bys by asteroids of similar threat. One way they plan on doing this is by launching a satellite in 2016 called ‘Osiris-Rex’ that will monitor Asteroid 1999 RQ36. A vastly bigger rock than DA14 but one that isnt scheduled to pass us again until 2182, posing a threat to future generations.

If you are a keen amateur astronomer the best places to see Asteroid 2012 DA14 will be in the Eastern Hemisphere but if you live elsewhere and you are equipped with a small telescope you maybe lucky enough to find it in the northern sky passing through to the south on Friday February 15th, although it will appear very faint and only for a short while.

Happy Hunting.

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Apocalypse 2012: Nibiru, the Maya or Planetary Alignment?

2 Dec Google Images

So this year is to be the year it all ends, our planets eradication from this Universe has been foreseen. The last remaining grains of sand have been said to be cascading down on our time here on Earth. It seems not without one last hooray. What terror this way comes? What is it we are to be so afraid of?  Are we to fear a head on collision with another planet or is celestial alignment due to bring Armageddon? We are going to look at some of the more popular catastrophe theories and more importantly deflate them, one thing you can be certain of is we sure as hell do not need Bruce Willis to get involved.

If you are looking for an exaggerated conspiracy story then you have come to the wrong place. Gossip and hear say is to blame for the, somewhat, minor hysteria that has caused people to fear the year 2012. Whatever viral ‘day of reckoning’ theory you are into read this carefully and tick the following rumors off your doomsday, checklist book. The world is not going to end this month and if it does, then money will be donated to some sort of charity for Zombies.

Artists depiction of Planet X (Nibiru)

One premise for Earths destruction is Planet X, or Nibiru, a theoretical body thought by some to be orbiting our Sun in the outer reaches of the Solar System. Belief in this planet stems from certain hypothesis drawn up hundreds of years ago. Astronomer Percival Lowell believed the wondering world was there due to inaccuracies in his research on Neptune. Other people were just plain crazy with the idea. Lowell coined the term ‘Planet X’ in 1894 to explain certain anomalies in the outer planet’s orbits but the phrase was stolen and used by Nancy Lieder in 1995.

Nancy Lieder, part-time theorist and website entrepreneur (website below), proclaimed that she was receiving messages from extra-terrestrials through an implant positioned in her brain. After some years being somewhat ignored she then went onto announce that Planet X was on its way to collide with Earth. This huge careering agent would speed through the inner Solar System and fly-by very close to us; this would apparently cause, puzzlingly, the magnetic field of the earth to reverse at the poles. The initial year for impact was 2003 but this date was obviously ridiculed after no such event occurred, then all theories related to Nibiru were abandoned.

Nancy still defends her ideas to this day, believing 2012 is to be the real end date. Here is an article on the planet terrorizing the solar system from the mastermind herself.

However, there is a rather large problem with this theory, Where is Nibiru? For a planet that is thought to be bigger than Jupiter it is awfully well concealed. Some have said Nibiru is simply orbiting the other side of the Sun, others have said its so dark in colour you can not see it against the blackness of space. The fact is, it is not there because if the planet were orbiting our sun, humans would have known about it for centuries maybe even millennia. This theory seems to far fetched to be anything other than individual lunacy especially since there is no shred of evidence to Planet X’s existence.

Another story that has caught the virtual headlines this year is a theory on planetary alignment. A picture showing three planets over the pyramids at Giza quickly spread across the world declaring that this celestial phenomenon would happen for the first time in nearly 2,800. The only thing wrong with this one is, well, science. Some prankster has obviously found out about certain goings on in the night sky around the winter solstice and decided to try and fool the easily swung majority. Many people did a small amount of research to decipher if any of these events were to take place anytime soon. Well actually three planets will line up over Egypt on the December 3rd 2012, but not symmetrically over the pyramids. Saturn, Venus and Mercury will appear close in the Eastern sky but this is not planetary alignment. The angle of the ‘alignment’ would also look more vertical than horizontal. (see picture below).

Hoax image of Planteary alignment

Planetary ‘alignment’ as it would look over Egypt

This picture (Left) has obviously been doctored because the event has not taken place yet. Another note is that if it was a real snapshot, as a photographer you would have to stand on the Northwest side of the monuments. The hoax picture would of have to have been taken from the Southeast meaning the accuracy of the ‘alignment’ is simply unfeasible. Researching this theory brought up no tangible evidence to support  just what planetary alignment theorists think will happen come this day. Does gravity cease to exist throughout the universe causing worlds and suns to fall? Does it awaken some sort of ancient evil behemoth to terrorize human kind? One answer I found was a link to the Mayans and the dreaded end to the now world famous calendar. There seems to be NO link between the two, although admittedly if one theory of the Apocalypse was to be right, this is the most feasible.

The Mayans are an ancient and very attuned race who used “The Long Count” calendar, as many other pre-columbian mesoamerica civilizations did, to calculate when and where they were. This age old calendar is scheduled to end this month on the 21st December 2012.

This has led many conspirators and schemers to envision doomsday according to Maya prophecy. The fact is anyone would have severe difficulty putting a date on doomsday. Nostradamus could not get it right in the end, so someone else must have seen it coming? Present day astrologers would leave this subject well alone, even as they proclaim supernatural telekinetic visions guide their teachings of the stars and human personality fusing. Even modern religious factions stay well away from putting exact dates on events. So did the Mayans have it right? Is the end of their calendar due to be the end of existence, as we know it? Well, the Maya were clever but not that clever.

The Maya were an intellectual and spiritual people living in what is now called Guatemala, on the border with Mexico. Throughout thousands of years these people strived to improve many aspects to their civilization. They were already great agriculturalists but as time went on they became experts in water cultivation, masonry and astronomy. During this period of huge improvement for human civilization the Maya always withheld their strong beliefs on worship and creation.

The story of Maya creation says that this world or realm we currently live in was the last in a series of eras that did not meet the almighty god Hunab Ku’s approval. We are currently considered to be within the fourth of theses worlds. The first three were all built and then destroyed by flood due to Hunab Ku being unhappy with imperfections to the composition of there inhabitants. The first occupants were too dense and unimaginative, the second uncommunicative and the third to god like. The fourth world’s inhabitants (the ancient maya) will also eventually be destroyed by a great flood, when? No one knows. This event holds no direct correlation with when the Long Count Calendar said the world would end. Although, it has to be said, recent natural events across the world has caused many to draw up comparisons.

The Mayan calendar is very different to ours, although they were great astronomers and used the cosmos’ clockwork to roughly the same accuracy as we record it today. Maya time keeping was made using much larger periods, the second largest being a B’ak’tun. Prophecy sees each b’ak’tun last roughly 144,000 days or roughly 394 years, according to a modern clock. On the 21st December 2012 we will come to the end of what the Mayans know as the 13th b’ak’tun. The end might sound disastrous and terrifying but many scholars say that this is just a transition period into a new age, or the “14th b’ak’tun”.

Now the only issue is that there is no 14th b’ak’tun. The Maya simply do not have a unit larger than 13 baktuns or 5,128 years. Using this time period working backwards we get to the year 3114 BC, many chronologists believe this date to be either the creation of this 4th world or that some other colossal event took place around this time. Other theorists just think that the Mayan calendar will simply reset to 0 rather than a great flood that destroys all life on Earth. The end of an ancient peoples calendar doesn’t mean that some sort of pubescent millennium bug is back either, so get that out of your minds.

The 21st of December is very close to the winter solstice, a time when the sun reaches the lowest point in the sky and begins its journey back up the horizon, meaning longer hours of light and heat. This date has been regarded as a celebration for millennia across the world and time itself due to the longer periods of energy essential for farming and hunting. The subject of winter solstice was covered in a previous Before Us The Stars article,

The Maya were fantastic astronomers and agriculturalists so this is no coincidence that an important date to them should also fall on a still significant date to millions around the globe. Being aware of the cosmos was vitally important to enabling the civilization to grow; the Mayans were able to fine-tune their calendar over generations ensuring they would never go hungry.

All of these theories carry only the one thing in common, the fact that they are just theories. Armageddon is coming, that is a fact, but real substantial evidence on the exact date would be almost impossible to find. Almost impossible because when it comes to the universe we are clueless, we have no real idea about what is out there, is that surely the most exciting theory of all?

However we are a species able to change and predict the world around us, a land probably envisioned by ancient ancestors of ours.

What will you be doing on Friday 21st December 2012 to celebrate or repent?