Show Me The Data!

Time for another blog post in response to a thousand questions!

OK, it's not a thousand questions, but over the past two days we have received numerous remarkably similar- if not almost identical - questions, so I think that makes it worthy of a blog post. Here's the gist of the question: where are the latest NASA images of Comet ISON?

It's a simple enough question with a reasonably straight-forward answer. But first I want to clear up a bit of a misconception: we are not NASA!. We -- the CIOC -- are a group of scientists of varying employers, backgrounds, and interests in studying comets, that have been collected together at the recommendation of NASA to coordinate, encourage and facilitate a global observing campaign for Comet ISON. Furthermore, the CIOC does not collect data and thus we are not in a position to supply data to anyone, given that we have no data to supply! On this point I encourage further reading of our recently created FAQs page.

So with that disclaimer out of the way, I can now address the question of why there has been no "new NASA images" of Comet ISON released lately. And the answer there is quite succinct: there aren't any!. I can already hear a chorus of voices cry out in horror at that statement, so of course I will elaborate...

Those that have been following the latest Comet ISON news for a few months now will know that until recently our view of it was blocked by the Sun for an extended period of time. It was recovered by amateur astronomer Bruce Gary in early August and has gradually begun to be observed by increasing numbers of amateur astronomers. I was recently asked why it is that amateur astronomers were the ones to "recover" ISON, and why NASA didn't use its infinite telescopic powers to do it! It's a valid question, and one that I answered in my last blog post. The tl;dr of that blog post is simply that ISON was in a part of the sky that made it very difficult/dangerous for multi-million dollar observatories to risk their optics, and as cool and interesting as ISON is, it's not that important that major observatories were going to risk their equipment to catch a glimpse of it at that time.

So for those wondering why there are no new NASA images of Comet ISON since the Spitzer results from June, I urge you to read that blog post. The reasoning given there has held true for a couple of weeks now. But in spite of that, according to our very own observing calendar the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and EPOXI/Deep Impact (DI) missions should have taken images by now. Where are those images?

I'll start with MRO. They had a planned two-day observing window in which they were going to point some of their instruments and test their operation plans for when Comet ISON is close to Mars in early October. For missions like MRO that are designed to look at a planet around which they are orbiting, turning their instruments in the opposite direction and trying to detect a fuzzy iceball is NOT something that's done on a whim. It has to be meticulously planned, prepared for, and tested, to ensure that the spacecraft and instruments behave as anticipated, and there are no unforeseen snags that arise. So, put simply, MRO's observations were a largely just dry-run for October, and while they did successfully point their instruments at the region of sky that contained ISON, it is my understanding that the comet was still a tad too faint for them to detect. This is a shame but not a huge surprise; as I said, this was a dry run for October.

So what about DI? That's a comet science mission, so where are those images>?! Well the answer there is also simple, though unsatisfying: there aren't any. Unfortunately, as they now state on a recent update to their status page, the spacecraft encountered an error and they lost contact with it sometime between August 11 and August 14. They have now re-established contact and are looking into understanding that error, but it means that it was unable to take observations of ISON. As of right now I do not know of any further plans to take ISON observations with DI. Yes, our observing calendar lists DI (EPOXI) observations until September 12... but that's an observing window, NOT an observing plan. After the communications loss, they unfortunately aren't going to be making any ISON observations in this window.

I realize it seems frustrating that we have a NASA-backed observing campaign and no apparent images with a big "NASA" logo stamped on them. But that's simply not how these kinds of campaigns work. Our goal is to raise awareness of the scientific merit of observing the comet, to encourage facilities to allocate observing time to the comet, and to assist ground and space-based observatory teams with planning and executing the observations. We can not control when, or if, they actually make those observations -- that's simply not our role.

On a positive note, we are now only about four weeks from Comet ISON entering the field of view of the NASA STEREO/SECCHI HI-2A field of view. Once it reaches that camera, we will be observing it 24/7 at least until December, if not later. Also in early October is when ISON has its close approach to Mars, and we have several projects that are going to attempt observations. In the meantime, there are good numbers of amateur astronomers taking images of Comet ISON, at least some of which attributable to the interest generated by the CIOC.

Keep up-to-date on the latest ISON and sungrazing comet news via my @SungrazerComets Twitter feed. All opinions stated on there, and in my blog posts, are my own.