A Stunning Look at the Cliffs of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko

The Cliffs of Churyumov-Gerasimenko: an enhanced and procosessed crop of an image from Rosetta's navcam. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM, processing by Stuart Atkinson.

Images from space don’t get more dramatic than this. Image processing wizard Stuart Atkinson zoomed in on one of the most intriguing views yet of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, highlighting the contrasts of dark and light, smooth and rugged, soft contours and frighteningly vertical cliffs.

The orginal image, below, is a four-image mosaic made from images snapped by Rosetta’s navigation camera, taken from a distance of 20.1 km from the center of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on 10 December. The image resolution is 1.71 m/pixel and the individual 1024 x 1024 frames measure 1.75 km across. The mosaic is slightly cropped and measures 2.9 x 2.6 km.

This four-image mosaic comprises images taken from a distance of 20.1 km from the center of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on  December 10, 2014.  Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM.
This four-image mosaic comprises images taken from a distance of 20.1 km from the center of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on December 10, 2014. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM.

You can see more about this image on the Rosetta blog. See more of Stu’s great work on his website Cumbrian Sky and on Twitter.

Astro Poetry: The First Starship

Artist's concept of NASA's Voyager spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Our favorite astro-poet, Stuart Atkinson, has written a wonderful ode to Voyager 1 in commemoration of the spacecraft reaching interstellar space. Stu has a knack for turning science into poetry!

The First Starship

I needed no nacelles to push me onwards;
No dilithium crystals crackled in my heart.
Yet I have left Sol so far behind me she is
Just a star now, a golden spark in a salt grain sea,
And I can feel her gentle breath on my cheek
No more.

In my ears now the whalesong of the universe
Drowns out the sounds of distant, troubled Earth.
Oh, the blissful peace!
Out here all I can hear
Is the fabled music of the spheres.
Each trembling tone rolling under me,
Every mellow note washing over me
Was sung somewhere Out There.
Melodies ripped from ravenous black holes’ throats,
Screamed from the broken hearts of dying stars
Swirl around me, multi-wavelength whispers
In the dark and endless night.

My head is full of memories…
Skimming Titan’s marmalade-haze atmosphere;
My first sight of Jove’s great bloodshot eye,
Staring back at me, into me, as I flew by;
Earth as Pale Blue Dot, a Sagan sequin
Dancing in a sunbeam…

Ahead now – the solar system’s Barrier Reef.
Terra will whip around Sol 300 times before
I reach the Oort’s icy inner harbour wall
And tens of thousands of times more before
I finally leave port, sailing on in serene silence
For forty millennia more before I venture anywhere
Near another star…

And in ten million years, when Earth’s proud citadels
And cities have crumbled and whatever evolves
In their dust to take Mankind’s place
Stares out into space with curious, alien eyes,
I will still be flying through the stars.
Your legacy. Proof that once you dared to dream
Noble, Camelot dreams
And reached out, through me, to explore eternity.

(c) Stuart Atkinson Sept 13th 2013

Written to commemorate and celebrate the Sept 12, 2013 announcement that Voyager 1 had entered interstellar space.

Read more of Stu’s poetry at this Astropoetry website and his other musings at Cumbrian Sky.

Guest Post: Comet Kerfuffle

An image generated from Starry Night software of how Comet ISON may look on November 22, 2013 from the UK.

Editor’s note: This guest post was written by Stuart Atkinson, a space and astronomy enthusiast who blogs at Cumbrian Sky, Road to Endeavour, which follows the Opportunity rover, and The Gale Gazette which discusses imagery from the Curiosity rover.

Unless you’ve been cut off from the internet today you’ll have heard about The Comet. No, not Comet PANSTARRS, which is due to shine in the sky next March, perhaps rivalling the fondly-remembered Comet Hale Bopp from 1996, but another comet. Comet 2012/S1, or “Comet ISON” to give it its full name. It’s everywhere you look on Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus. Why? Because initial calculations of its orbit show it will pass ridiculously close to the Sun next November, skimming the solar surface at a height of just under two million kilometres. And that means it might shine jaw-droppingly bright in the sky at that time, before it heads back off into deep space again.

So, of course, adding two and two to get fifty, there are lots of people getting more excited about this comet than a dog in a lamp post factory. If you were to believe some of the comments being written about it, it is absolutely nailed-on guaranteed to shine like a welding torch in the sky next November, blazing at magnitude -16, with a tail stretching across the sky like a WW2 searchbeam.

Can we all just calm down, please?

Although Comet ISON looks promising, very promising in fact, it’s very early days. It needs to be observed a lot more before we know exactly what’s in store for us, and even then what it will actually look like in the sky is impossible to predict this far ahead. You see, comets are notoriously unreliable, and love nothing better than getting astronomers on Earth all fired up with the promise of a dazzling nocturnal display before fizzling out and being so faint they need binoculars to see them. Hardly surprising, seeing as comets are essentially great big chunks of dirty ice, and we only see them because they’re melting and falling to pieces as they race around the Sun. You can’t predict how that will work out now, can you?

There’s a whole spectrum of possibilities here. At one end of that spectrum, ISON will live up to the most breathless predictions and blaze in the sky like a science fiction movie special effect. Its tail will span half the sky, becoming visible as soon as the Sun has set, and we will stand on our hillsides and in our gardens looking at it and slowly shaking our heads in wonder before we remember we’ve actually got a camera set up, and start taking pictures of it.

At the other end of the spectrum, ISON will play us all for fools, and even before its close solar flyby it will break up without developing a searchbeam tail, and we’ll all stand on our hillsides and in our gardens looking at it through binoculars and shaking our fists at it angrily, cursing its icy crust.

I think we should cross our fingers for something between the two. We should hope that ISON stays in one piece, survives its close encounter with the Sun, and shines in the twilight sky next November like another Lovejoy or McNaught. I’ll be happy with that, to be honest. Because I’m a citizen of the northern hemisphere my only views of Lovejoy were on my computer monitor, as I drooled over the images of it taken by astronomers and skywatchers in Australia and New Zealand and across the southern hemisphere. I caught a fleeting glimpse of McNaught from here in Kendal – standing in the ruins of the castle that stands above my town, I saw the comet through binoculars through a brief gap in the clouds, as I stood in the rain – but again I ‘saw’ it online rather than with my own eyes, cursing (good naturedly) all those people south of the equator who were seeing the real thing shining in their sky…

An image generated from Starry Night software of how Comet ISON may look on November 29, 2013 from the UK.

(I have to be honest here: having missed the last two Great Comets because of my latitude, when I fired up STARRY NIGHT earlier today, and stepped forward in time to next November, I experienced a rather ungentlemanly “Ha! Our turn!” moment of pure smugness as I saw that ISON’s path will carry it through my sky..!)

The best thing we can do, seriously, is just cross our fingers. Hope for the best, but prepare for…something less than that.

And yet…

Comets are magical, aren’t they? They bring out the dreamer, the optimist and the romantic in all of us. And although I’m fighting it, my head is full of images as I write this, memories of the comets I have seen before, and wondering what ISON will bring. I remember my first sighting of Halley’s Comet, on Guy Fawkes Night 1985. It was just a smudge of a blur in my binoculars, as I stood on the sports playing field near my home, breathing in the smell of bonfires and fireworks in the darkness; I remember standing in the deep, dark Cumbrian countryside, in the gravelled gateway of a farm field, and tracing out the ridiculous extent of Comet Hyakyutake’s pale green tail across the star-spattered sky; and I remember standing in the centre of the ancient Castlerigg stone circle outside Kewsick and, in perfect silence, and feeling a real connection to the watching Comet Hale-Bopp shining above the fells, its twin tails looking like they had been sprayed across the heavens by some cosmic grafitti artist…

What memories will I have after Comet ISON has flown past the Sun, I wonder…

It’s tempting to look at the elements of this comet, and to simulate its apparition using planetarium software, and to get excited. But really, let’s take it easy. I mean, we’ve been here before. Some comets in the past have promised the Earth (mentioning no names… *cough* Kohoutek *cough* ) only to pass by without any real fanfare or fuss, leaving astronomers with a lot of egg on their faces.

So, everyone, take a deep breath, and look at the calendar. ISON is going to be in the sky next November. NEXT November. That’s over a year away. Anything could happen before then.

And yet…

By Stuart Atkinson

Planetary Conjunction Mashup

A triple conjunction between 3 different objects: Venus, The Pleiades and an airplane!! Taken on the 4th Apr 2012, 12:15UT. Credit: Shahrin Ahmad

A Boulder Side of Venus – Conjunctions 2012 from Patrick Cullis on Vimeo.

So far, 2012 has brought us a plethora of planetary conjunctions, with Venus pairing with the Moon, Jupiter and the Pleiades. Not all at the same time, of course, but photographer Patrick Cullis has put them all together in this wonderful timelapse mashup video, which includes the beautiful foreground of the Flatirons of Boulder, CO. “Jupiter and Venus dominated the early days of March, coming within 3 degrees of one another,” writes Patrick. “Then, Venus passed a crescent moon on its way to a meeting with the Seven Sisters, also known as the Pleiades.”

And we’re all waiting for this year’s big conjunction on June 5 or 6, 2012, depending on your location, then the tiny disk of Venus will glide across the face of the Sun. That won’t happen again until 2117.

To complete our conjunction mashup, we’ve got a really unique image, below, of a triple conjunction between 3 different objects, Venus, The Pleiades and an airplane taken on April 4, sent to us by Shahrin Ahmad in Malaysia, PLUS, a wonderful new poem by space’s poet laureate, Stuart Atkinson, about his experiences viewing the recent conjunctions. It’s a must read for any amateur astronomer, putting to words the joys — and disappointments — of lifting your eyes to the heavens!



By Stuart Atkinson

For weeks I watched them drift towards each other,
Approaching shyly, slyly; two would-be lovers
From a Jane Austen dance, casting furtive glances
Across the ballroom of the golden twilight,
Eyes for no-one else as nightfall drew near.
Venus – lovely and lantern-bright, out-shining
Every other dancer on the floor; Jupiter – fainter
By far but still beaming with a noble light,
Stalking his pretty planetary prey…

The first time I saw them they were still
A third-of-the-sky apart,
But each blazing Turner sunset brought them closer yet,
Each day’s end a little better-placed to gaze
Upon each other’s radiant face,
And a million Earthbound eyes looked on, amazed
To see two such fine celestial jewels
Coming together in the sky.
Some sought out a sheltered, grassy place
Of peace and dark to watch the twin sparks’
Close approach in groups; others stood alone
In overgrown gardens or on concrete roofs,
Marvelling at the view from their light-polluted
Homes, wondering what they would see if only
They could escape the Bright and find a place
Without the blinding security lights’ flares
And streetlights’ orange glare…

Of course, I missed the breathless climax
Of their brief encounter. For half a dozen days
Either side of that ringed-in-red date
My sky was thick with cloud fat and foul,
A star- and planet-hiding shroud draped o’er
The Auld Grey Town that was not pulled away
Until the planet parade had passed by,
And the next time I looked to the west
The best view had come and gone:
Unseen by me, Venus and Jupiter had chastely
Touched fingers then parted, leaving
The lovesick gas giant fading, falling
Forlornly towards the rooftops and trees
While the Goddess of Love soared higher,
Growing ever-brighter as she climbed…

Cheated? Yes. But I have fine memories
Of some magical nights, and a hundred photographs,
Taken from the shores of moonlit, duck-dotted lakes
And crumbling castle walls. Sometimes in company,
More usually alone I stood and watched those distant
Worlds waltzing across the western sky,
My so-often-now world weary eyes
Suddenly wide again with wonder at the beauty of it all,
Listening to them calling “Look at us! See
How gloriously we shine above your sleepy little town…!”

…Far apart now, their dusky dalliance a thing of the past,
Venus and Jupiter are just bright stars once more;
The night sky’s restless showbiz spotlight has swept on,
Picking out Saturn, Mars and a waning Moon,
The Great Conjunction relegated
To Celestial Celebrity Has Been history.

Which is how it should be.

The Earth turns, and turns, and turns, setting a universe
Of stars and planets wheeling around pale Polaris,
Lovely and sentinel-still,
While the Milky Way floats serenely
Through her snow-globe of glitter-flake galaxies,
The prickling breeze of a billion billion suns’ solar winds
Blowing on the faces of the few evolved apes
Brave enough to lift their eyes from the grey
Landscapes of their everyday lives and catch
A fleeting glimpse of beauty in the Great Beyond…

© Stuart Atkinson 2012

Astrophoto: Venus Above Kendal Castle

Venus Above Kendal Castle in the UK. Credit: Stuart Atkinson


Thanks to our pal Stu Atkinson for braving the elements and risking life and limb to capture this image: “I trekked up to Kendal Castle to try and get some pictures of Venus blazing in the dusk sky above the castle ruins…,” Stu wrote on his blog, Cumbrian Sky. “On the way I fell, really went down, slipping on some mud and landing flat on my back, limbs everywhere, but when I got home and saw how the images turned out, well, it was worth the tumble!”

We agree — this is a beautiful image! Click on the image for larger version, where you can see all the gorgeous detail.

Stu took this image during the BBC Stargazing Live activities, which are currently taking place.

Want to get your astrophoto featured on Universe Today? Join our Flickr group, post in our Forum or send us your images by email (this means you’re giving us permission to post them). Please explain what’s in the picture, when you took it, the equipment you used, etc.

It’s Noctilucent Cloud Season!

Noctilucent clouds over Kendal Castle, England in June 2010. Credit: Stuart Atkinson


It’s summer (well, OK, technically next week it is summer) but it’s the time of year that northern latitudes can see the beautiful, awe inspiring atmospheric phenomena called Noctilucent Clouds, or night shining clouds. They aren’t like regular cumulus or cirrus clouds, but are mysterious and unique high atmosphere cloud formations thought to be composed of small ice-coated particles. How they form and why is not well understood, and usually the best time to see them is at twilight when the high altitude clouds are backlit by the sun. But Stu Atkinson in England sent in these great images of NLC’s, which he took in the wee hours of the morning (he woke up at 1:30 am) from the stunning location of Kendal Castle. He’s got more at his website, Cumbrian Sky.

Noctilucent clouds in Lancashire taken by Mark Purvis in 2009.

This image was sent in by UT reader Mark Purvis, who wrote, “This is an image I took in Beacon point in Lancashire. It was taken on the 21st July 2009 at 23:30(ish) with an Olympus E-400.”

Another look at Noctilucent clouds over Kendal Castle, England. Credit: Stuart Atkinson

If you have taken some images of NLC’s send them to Nancy and we’ll post them.

For more NLC images, see Spaceweather.com’s gallery.

Here’s a link to some NLC pictures (plus a Comet McNaught photo) taken in Germany, also taken in the early morning hours, about 2:30 am local time.

Check out this link for a NLC FAQ.

And here’s some observing tips from Spaceweather.com: Look west 30 to 60 minutes after sunset when the Sun has dipped 6 degrees to 16 degrees below the horizon. If you see luminous blue-white tendrils spreading across the sky, you may have spotted a noctilucent cloud. High-northern latitudes are favored.

Thanks again to Stu for sending us his images.

Gorgeous Venus-Moon Conjunction Images

Venus-Moon conjuction, at Kendal Castle, England. Credit: Stuart Atkinson


A clear night, a crescent Moon, Venus, and an ancient castle. What more could you ever want? Our pal Stuart Atkinson captured these gorgeous images taken over the weekend from Kendal, in Cumbria, England. “An absolutely stunning view, seen from Kendal’s historic, ruined castle. Not another soul around as I enjoyed the spectacle,” Stu wrote. See more of his images below, plus you can see loads more at Spaceweather.com’s gallery.

Moon through the castle window. Credit: Stuart Atkinson

Twilight. Credit: Stuart Atkinson
Kendal Castle, with crescent Moon and Venus. Credit: Stuart Atkinson