Going for the Planets - and getting involved

Communications Homepage for the
Meetings of European Planetary and Cometary Observers
and other pan-European and global planetary amateur activities

Planet conference double feature in September EPSC & IWCMO

[April 28, 2009] Two major planet conferences in Europe this September: the EPSC Sep. 13-18 in Potsdam near Berlin, followed by the IWCMO Sep. 18-21 in Paris.

First pro-am session at an EPSC leaves desire for more

[Sep. 25, updated Oct. 5 and 9, 2008] There were - according to a little poll - 10 amateur astronomers in the audience, 13 professionals and 8 who regarded themselves as somewhere inbetween: Here is a report on what happened yesterday in session OA3 which was preceded by sessions on the IYA and planet outreach which are also described here (with a picture by yours truly). From the same source all EPSC reports, plus yet another note from the EPSC. There are also a few video snippets from EPSC'08. From the amateur contributions you can find a talk and its abstract about Venus in the IR and a poster and its abstract on Mars. Next year there could well be a little (one-day) amateur meeting be 'tacked' to the main conference (in Potsdam) - the return of the original MEPCO idea after 10 years?!

The 2008 EPSC has begun - first impressions

[Sep. 22, 2008] Here are - in German - some "erste EPSC-Impressionen" from Muenster and another report in English. Yours truly will be there only on Wednesday, for the outreach & amateur astronomy sessions.

1ST MEDIA ANNOUNCEMENT for EPSC 2008 received today

[June 9, 2008] Here it is: "Approximately 500 planetary and space scientists will gather for the third European Planetary Science Congress (EPSC) at the Westfälische Wilhelms Universität, Schlossplatz, Münster, Germany from Sunday 21 September to Friday 26 September 2008.

EPSC 2008 is organised by Europlanet, the European Planetology Network in association with the European Geosciences Union. The programme covers latest results from ongoing planetary science missions, presentations of new planetary missions under study and exploration techniques. Sessions include Lunar exploration, nano-sat and nano-probe concepts for future planetary exploration, Mars polar deposits and first results from Phoenix, new science from Mercury, the origin of life and life under extreme conditions, astrobiology of subsurface ocean and Titan lakes. Presentations on the ESA Cosmic Vision candidate missions, Tandem, Laplace and Marco Polo, will be among the highlights of the meeting.

This year's programme also features a special session on contributions from amateur astronomy to planetary research.

Media representatives are cordially invited to attend. Press room facilities will be available for the duration of the conference - from 9 am on Monday 22 September through to 3 pm on Friday 26 September. The venue has a wireless network. Media registration is free. Any bona fide media delegates can pre-register online or by e-mailing Anita Heward at anitaheward@btinternet.com . (Advance registration is not essential but encouraged).

Further information will be circulated a few weeks before the meeting, including press notices on presentations that may be of special interest (subject to embargo). Details of the congress can be found at the official website. A full schedule of EPSC 2008 scientific sessions and events will be found on the website in due course."

Amateur contributions to spaceprobe image processing hailed

[June 8, 2008] Here are the slides of a talk the Planetary Society's E. Lakdawalla gave twice at an astronomy conference last week: She shows some nice examples of amateur-processed images from recent planetary missions and invites the pro community to utilize this ressource!

Berkeley Press Release hails JUPOS amateur program

[May 22, 2008] In connection with the discovery of yet another Red Spot on Jupiter, the respective UCB/Keck Press Release states: "The Hubble team consisted of de Pater, Marcus, Wong and Asay-Davis of UC Berkeley and Go of the Philippines. The Keck team members were de Pater, Wong and Conor Laver of UC Berkeley and Conrad of the Keck Observatory. The contributions by the amateur network (http://jupos.privat.t-online.de/) was invaluable for this research." Nice to hear that ...

Call for Papers for EPSC#3 in Germany - to amateurs!

[May 21, 2008] The following call is now out to the community: >> We would like to invite you to attend and contribute to the 3rd European Planetary Science Congress (EPSC#3), held in Muenster, Germany, 21-26 September 2008, particularly to session: OA3: "Amateur Astronomy".

This session should provide a platform to foster or even strengthen cooperation between amateur astronomers and planetary scientists. Experience reports from technical equipment, observational techniques, data analysis methods (e.g., telescopes, videoastronomy, image processing), ground-based observations of planets, asteroids, comets, meteor showers, and coordinated observational campaigns are welcome. The session will include solicited and contributed papers; poster presentations are particularly encouraged.

For further information on session OA3, online abstract submission (deadline June, 1), and reduced registration fees for teachers and amateur astronomers, please visit COSIS. We would appreciate forwarding this session announcement to interested colleagues and look forward to seeing you in Muenster, Germany. << The conference fee for amateur astronomers is only EUR 20 (in contrast to EUR 300 for professionals) for full access to all sessions. Posters stay up all week, with poster sessions on Tuesday and Thursday.

Lots of exciting results at the annual German planet/comet observers conference

[May 13, 2008] Key trends are the use of ever more exotic wavelengths - and the increasing value of amateur planet data seen by professional astronomers: Here's a summary of the highlights of the 30th German planet con (if you count in the first three MEPCOs).

Did Venus Express "smell" signs of active Venus volcanoes?

[April 4, 2008] Instruments on the Venus Express Orbiter have detected "a highly variable quantity of the volcanic gas sulphur dioxide in the atmosphere of Venus. Scientists must now decide whether this is evidence for active volcanoes on Venus, or linked to a hitherto unknown mechanism affecting the upper atmosphere."

More details emerge on next European Planetary Science Congress

[March 4, 2008] Now there's a Flyer telling us: "The Institut fuer Planetologie welcomes participants in the European Planetary Science Congress 2008, and is looking forward to hosting an exciting meeting. The European Planetary Science Congress 2008 represents a cooperation between the European Planetary Network and the European Geosciences Union. The meeting will take place at the Westfaelische Wilhelms-Universitaet Muenster, Schlossplatz 2, from September 21 - 26, 2008. Located in the heart of Europe, Muenster is a unique location for the European Planetary Science Congress. This meeting will have a distinctively interactive style, with a mix of talks, workshops and posters, intended to provide a stimulating environment for the community to discuss the latest planetary results." Most importantly, two sessions on Monday have been reserved for amateur talks! (A call for abstracts will be issued on March 17.) And there are plans to run a European amateur mini-conference in Muenster on the weekend immediately preceding the EPSC 2008 - stay tuned!

Amateur notes marked changes in Solis Lacus

[Jan. 31, 2008] Comparing images of past Mars oppositions with the current one great changes in Solis Lacus are apparent in that one large area has brightened up.

Mercury: amateurs and MESSENGER

[Jan. 25, 2008] Some features 'discovered' by MESSENGER this month can also be imaged by amateurs!

Details of next European Planetary Science Congress emerge

[Jan. 18/21, 2008] This conference will be held in Muenster, Germany - and will address amateur planet observers more than ever (details pending :-). Stay tuned ... (announcement also found in the latest Planetary Exploration Newsletter).

VMC observing Venus' surface in the near IR

[Nov. 9, 2007] On the occasion of the 2nd launch anniversary, a press release in German hailing the achievements of the Venus Monitoring Camera.

Submitting your pictures of Venus is now easier

[Nov. 2, 2007] Whether you're an amateur or a professional astronomer, it is now easier to help Venus Express by submitting your pictures via a newly launched web interface: ESA Release. German amateur astronomers actually helped ESA to design this system.

Amateur Venus imagery hailed in professional press release

[Aug. 25, 2007] "Results from an ongoing collaboration between amateur astronomers and the European Space Agency to support the Venus Express mission will be presented at the European Planetary Science Congress in Potsdam on Wednesday 22nd August. Silvia Kowollik, from the Zollern-Alb Observatory in Germany and one of the participants in the project, said, 'This is the first time there's been a European collaboration between amateur astronomers and scientists. In the United States, they have a long tradition and a lot of experience in this kind of work. In Europe we are just starting.'" Thus begins a Press Release [Back-Up] from said conference, based on this poster, also described in this handout.

The first images of the Uranus RPX are in!

[Aug. 23, 2007] As witnessed by Hubble, the rings practically disappeared in mid-August (as also seen in VLT images), while Keck's near-IR images after the May RPX show the dark side of the rings pretty bright.

The best in ground-based imaging of Mercury

[Aug. 16, 2007] Two papers have appeared this year that demonstrate 'extreme' videoastronomy applied to the planet Mercury, using 1,3 meter aperture and 'lucky imaging': Find links in this article! [Added Oct. 18, 2007] Months later Sky & Tel. also noted the story.

Mailing list for Uranus equinox afficionados

[July 17/22, 2007] A mailing list for astronomers observing the planet Uranus during its 2007 ring plane crossings and equinox, open for everyone interested, has been set up at the SETI institute (which happens to host the relevant professional astronomers). Mark Showalter also reports that "[a]s far as the May RPX is concerned, Uranus was too close to the Sun for much observing. I am not aware of any observations prior to late May." But with the next RPX coming up on August 16, the viewing will be much better, and observations have begun.

Amateur Venus paper accepted for EuroPlanNet conference

[July 1, 2007] Scroll down this list and look at the abstract by Kowollik et al. for a poster to be presented at the European Planetary Science Congress in Potsdam, Germany, 19 - 24 August 2007!

First Venus images from MESSENGER released; show just white clouds

[June 15, 2007] Since it lacks Venus-specific filters, the first images released from the June 5/6 Venus flyby of the Mercury-bound MESSENGER spacecraft show just white clouds w/o any features. But at least they show that the camera is working well and promises great close-ups of Mercury, starting next January during the 1st of 3 fly-bys.

Japanese planet image archive changes server!

[June 9, 2007] One of the most complete archive of current amateur planet photographs, run by Japan's ALPO with input from around the world, is now here! All images taken after May 31 are only shown on this new site.

Amateur Venus UV images of interest for Venus Express data analysis!

And Uranus with 80 cm begins to show reliable atmospheric features

[May 29, 2007] This is what you want to hear: At this year's German Planet & Comet Conference (an annual observers' gathering at pentecost) one of the professional keynote speakers, Richard Moissl from the Venus Monitoring Camera on Venus Express, made actual use of UV images gathered earlier this year by amateur astronomers! While the VMC - which delivers striking imagery of fine cloud detail, lots of waves etc.; many pictures were shown at the meeting for the first time in public - sees only part of Venus' clouds, the amateur images deliver the (apparently much-needed) global context. At the same meeting amazingly detailled Venus results with an 80 cm mirror were shown - which is also hinting at something interesting at Uranus, by the way.

Major ground-based Venus campaign under way!

[May 23, 2007] In Support of the MESSENGER Venus flyby on June 5 as well as Venus Express, from today until June 9 a huge number of telescopes will be observing Venus, with amateurs as invited as ever. Perhaps the presence of a NASA spacecraft (where it is the usual procedure to make fresh images available to the public ASAP) will gently force ESA into being a bit more forthcoming with current VEX imagery ...

The first (ever!) observation of a Uranian mutual event

[May 22, 2007] This feat has been reported in the CBAT Electronic Telegram No. 959 on May 11 ("CCD photometry [...] using the 2-m Faulkes Telescope South [...] reveals a mutual event between satellites Uranus IV (Oberon) and Uranus II (Umbriel) on May 4. [...] Observations are encouraged during the remainder of the current Uranian mutual event season") as well as in an Armagh Press Release (that also links to lots more mutual events info), the Plan. Soc. Blog (which earlier linked to this very website) and the New Scientist. The Uranian equinox is finally a media event! Nothing has been heard so far about the first RPX on May 2nd, though ...

Three days to go ... until the first ring plane crossing of Uranus in 42 years!

[April 29, 2007] A largely ignored (except once by the Planetary Society's Blog) but exceedingly rare celestial event is about to commence: For the first time since 1965 Uranus will show the exact edge of its ring system to the Earth on May 2nd. This unusual geometry will repeat twice over the following year, plus Uranus will experience equinox this December. A lot of unique observations will be performed by professional astronomers in a major campaign - and one wonders who much amateurs would be able to contribute. Uranus is clearly resolved by moderate telescopes but little more than the disk is usually imaged (just check out the ALPO image archive for "Uranus" in the last few years, e.g. Sep. 17, 2006).

Perhaps there is a chance to get the epsilon ring as well by clever choice of filters (Uranus specialist I. de Pater recommends 890 nm where a methane absorption band is located; personal mail today), long exposure and the perfect opening angle (see the Keck sequence above for its shrinking 2001 to 2005)? It's well possible that the epsilon ring simply disappears at RPX because of its density and thinness, instead of getting ever brighter because of higher column density. Large telescopes and Adaptive Optics in the Near IR show amazing things, the rings as well as clouds.

Only one thing is certain: You won't get anything if you don't give it a try! E.g. photometric measurements (with CCD or video cameras) of mutual events of the satellites could be possible even with 50-cm telescopes - and there is even an explicit call for amateur involvement in the equinox campaign. A lot has been found out about Uranus in the past, but there is much more to learn - e.g. if the claim that Herschel himself may have spotted the epsilon ring (which leading Uranus ring specialists don't consider credible) could have any merit ...

25 years ago: Venera 13 & 14 on Venus - and my first-ever 'paper'

[March 8, 2007] It was 25 years ago, on March 1 and 5, 1982, that two Soviet spacecraft gently landed on the hot surface of Venus - and sent home the first color images from this world: Venera 13 and Venera 14. These were wide panoramas, obtained with two Viking-like scanner cameras, only that the cameras were tilted half-way towards the ground (one can be seen here on the left side of the spherical s/c body). This allowed them to capture detail all the way to the horizon as well as close the landing spot, all in one big swoop; given the limited survival time, this was a rather clever solution. The resulting panoramas, however, looked quite unnatural to the human eye. Soon after the first versions of the Venera 14 panoramas became available I had an idea! My school had recently obtained its first computer - yes: one computer - for all students to use, an HP 9845A (widely in use at the time, though not in education but in labs). It was not capable of handling greyscale images but had a plotter that could also be used as a clumsy graphics tablet.

And so I went about to 'scan' a newspaper reproduction of one of the Venera 14 panoramas (an old b/w version is shown on top here), clicking on all the corners of the lava blocks lying around. In the end I had 1908 (x,y) coordinates in the database, representing both Venus' surface and s/c details in the image (see middle picture). From the shape of the horizon segments and the general distortion pattern I then estimated a center of geometry, transformed the coordinates and re-plotted them (lower picture; clicking on all makes them bigger). The resulting image reminded me of transformed versions of the Venera 9 and 10 b/w panoramas I had seen in the literature, so the the general procedure seemed to be sound. And thus I wrote, at an age of 17, my very first 'paper', published in Telescopium [Mitteilungen der Volkssternwarte Bonn Astronomische Vereinigung e.V.] 10 #2 [1982] 15. Only in recent years did I finally encounter a few other attempts to to improve the Venera 13/14 images, vastly more sophisticated (scroll way down) than mine a quarter century ago, of course. But they brought back lots of memories - as does the 25-year anniversary of the actual landings now!

How we swung around Mars

Changing course with Rosetta: live from mission control

[Feb. 25, 2007] ESA's comet-bound Rosetta spacecraft made it safely past Mars and through its shadow this morning Central European Time, now heading for a 2nd Earth flyby on Nov. 13. As it is customary for critical interplanetary events, the European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany, threw a press event/party on the occasion, as it had done in recent times e.g. for the Mars Orbit Insertion of Mars Express, the arrival of Huygens at Titan or the crash of SMART-1 into the Moon. Until recently the media gathered in a big conference room in ESOC's H building, often decorated in style for the particular mission, but since the SMART-1 event, we have moved 'closer to the action': into the much smaller meeting room E16 directly next to the main control room! Separated from the actual flight controllers just by a glass front, events can be followed probably more closely than with any other space agency, while key managers step in front of the guests to give updates. And so it was again, in the wee hours of Sunday, Feb. 25, 2007.

2:40 CET (1:40 UTC): The ESA Director of Science Programmes, Prof. David Southwood, starts the event with one of his uplifting speeches, reminding everyone (including some dignitaries from the Science Programme Committee in the front row) that it was ESA which first dared to venture really close to a comet, with Giotto 21 years ago. A long hiatus in planetary exploration followed, but with Mars Express, Huygens, SMART-1 and Rosetta "Europe is back firmly in the Solar System". Southwood calls Rosetta "the ultimate mission" in cometary science (not quite true, actually: that would be a sample return which no agency has dared to do so far) - and he states that "I don't have any guilt spending public money" on this kind of fundamental science: "It's a duty" for us, actually.

Next comes the Head of Flight Dynamics, Dr. Uwe Feucht (note that about everyone in charge is from a different country, part of the charm of ESA): He stresses that the Mars flyby is not a gravity assist to gain speed as e.g. New Horizons' Jupiter visit (see entry below). It's only about diverting Rosetta's trajectory (which loses a bit of energy) to reach Earth for the next Earth gravity assist, the 2nd of 3. "To reach the comet, turn left at Mars" thusly is the motto of the whole event! The last trajectory correction was performed on Feb. 9, just 4.55 cm/s: This changed the target point in the B plane (which goes through Mars and is perpendicular to Rosetta's flight path) by 60 km. It is now just 11 km off the perfect point, well within margins, and thus no further TCM has been performed since.

Rosetta Mission Manager Dr. Gerhard Schwehm explains that all science being performed around the flyby is strictly a bonus - but a nice one: On the orbiter the camera OSIRIS (bottom and center images) is on as are ALICE, VIRTIS, the NavCam, a plasma and a radiation monitor. The "prime 'viewing spot'" goes to the Philae lander, however, which has its owns batteries and can thus operate even through closest approach and and Martian shadow ("eclipse") when all orbiter instruments are at sleep! On Philae part of the CIVA camera is operating as well as the ROMAP magnetometer - and the data will be downlinked with priority after the encounter (just after 15:00 CET a truly stunning image has been released indeed; top).

3:03 CET: Rosetta Flight Director Dr. Paolo Ferri confesses that this is "quite a tense moment". Closest approach (at 249 km altitude, with a 3-sigma uncertainty of 3 km, as Feucht had predicted) has already happened in spacecraft event time, but with Mars still nearly on the other side of the Sun, signals take 17 minutes and 33 seconds to reach Earth, thus in ground received time the key events of the flyby are still ahead: loss of signal in 10 minutes when Rosetta disappears behind the Martian limb for 15 minutes, C/A and the eclipse - the first for the mission.

3:14:10 CET: An announcement comes through the mission control voice loop that the S band carrier has been lost - the occultation has begun. Always a somewhat uneasy time. Rosetta Spacecraft Operations Manager Andrea Accomazzo comes in and states that the loss of signal happened right at the predicted time, so the trajectory must be perfect! Rosetta is already in eclipse, and everyone hopes that the batteries work - they were used the last time during launch, ever since Rosetta was in sunlight. Many tests had been done, though, to make sure the batteries are up to the task. If Rosetta had launched as planned in 2003, there would not have been any eclipses, so lots of internal configurations of Rosetta had to be changed for the few critical minutes near Mars. E.g. the onboard software had to be taught not to panic when suddenly the Sun disappeared.

The Head of the Ground Facilities Operations Division Manfred Lugert stresses that not only ESA's own ground stations in Australia and Spain but partners from around the world were involved in getting Rosetta's trajectory right: As with Venus Express the Delta DOR (Delta Differential One-Way Ranging) technology is used in which two widely separated antennae track the spacecraft to triangulate its 3D position in space. And the antennae had to be really big as the signal at Earth is a mere 1/100th of a picowatt. At the moment only ESA's own New Norcia station in Australia is listening for the S band carrier that was kept on (w/o telemetry) "as a lifeline".

3:28:20 CET: Another announcement through the voice loop - the signal is back! Applause in E16. Accomazzo stresses that the reaquisition of the carrier proves that Rosetta is surviving in Mars' shadow. Ten more minutes before it sees the Sun again. In the meantime OSIRIS PI Horst Uwe Keller shows some of the images his camera got during approach: He is particularly excited about detached cloud and/or dust layers 60 km or so above ground (the middle image became available a few hours later). This may already constitute a discovery as it would be hard to explain how dust could get that high in Mars' tenuous atmosphere. For OSIRIS the Mars observations are also about cross-calibration with other Rosetta instruments as well as the HRSC camera on Mars Express. Could OSIRIS have operated at closest approach, it would actually have reached 5 meters ground resolution.

3:40:39 CET: The eclipse has now ended, says another announcement. And the S band carrier is still there, reports Accomazzo, drawing another round of applause. So Rosetta made it: "This was the most critical time since launch," says the Head of the Mission Operations Dept. Dr Manfred Warhaut. And at 3:52:40 CET the stream of telemetry is also back, showing up as a big spike on a spectrum analyzer. Happy faces everywhere, ESA's top managers are almost bubbly with joy and tell all kinds of interesting stories when triggered (but that would be another article :-). In particular Gerhard Schwehm tells me that so far all hardware on Rosetta is performing well, it's only the software in several instruments that needs to be improved. But there is plenty of time (arrival at the comet is only in early to mid-2014), plus four more opportunities for trying out Rosetta's instruments: two more Earth flybys and two asteroid visits. From 2011 til 2014 Rosetta will then hibernate, but even then enough work remains: the complex operations at Churyumov-Gerasimenko have to be prepared. (Clicking on the inlined images takes you to their sources. The upper one is (C) CIVA/Philae/ESA/Rosetta, the other two are (C) 2007 MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/RSSD/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA.)

Venus back in evening sky - great UV images already

[Feb. 25, 2007] A rather good evening visibility of Venus has begun, and the worldwide Venus archive is growing again: Interesting UV detail has been imaged on the small disk e.g. on Feb. 21 - but the best images I've seen so far were taken Feb. 14 in Austria and Feb. 22 in Germany!

New Horizons approaching Jupiter; many images available, but now just waiting

[Feb. 25, 2007] With NASA's New Horizons spacecraft approaching Jupiter for a much-needed gravity assist on Feb. 28, many raw images from the LORRI long-distance camera from the last few weeks have been made available in near-real time, as well as processed image products. During the hot days, however, hardly any new pictures will become available as everything goes onto internal storage (just as it will be done in 8+ years at 'dwarf planet' Pluto). The mission's PI, however, is blogging about what's going on both on the homepage of New Horizons and at Astronomy.com.

Finally a handful of low-altitude VEX images available

[Nov. 13, 2006] Two of the few new releases were taken in late July at 1.7 and 2.3 µm wavelength and show Venus' cloud structure in more detail than before; they came with a Press Release in October, and there were also some VEX news at the DPS Meeting in Pasadena, reported by the BBC and the Planetary Society. For solar conjuction the s/c was turned off but should be at work again now. Also the one year launch anniversary was marked recently, with the release of more images at 1.7 µm, from September and again July. Stay tuned here for any new material trickling in! From the SMART-1 impact there were hardly any news since two months, by the way. But you can now watch the EuroPlaNet video, parts of which were shot at the Graz meeting this June.

Earlier messages - there was a 2-month hiatus which is now over! - regarding
Europe-wide amateur planetary activities can be found here!