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Juno image of Jupiter
An image of Jupiter taken by NASA’s Juno spacecraft August 27, the same day it made a close flyby of the planet. Such rapid image releases have been rare for that mission, and some others. (credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS )

Rethinking image release policies in the age of instant gratification


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There’s no doubt we live in the age of instant gratification. The development of the Internet, computers, mobile phones, and tablets has made it possible to have almost everything right now. Do you want pizza? Do you need to look for a new job or a travel opportunity? It is just a matter of a mouse click or a finger tap. Paul Roberts, author of the book The Impulse Society, claims that our culture has already elevated immediate gratification to life’s primary goal.

We regularly see situations when a space mission doesn’t offer rapid image releases and it leads to arguments and quarrels.

Modern technologies present unique opportunities to those of us who consider themselves sincere space enthusiasts. Certain missions, like Cassini at Saturn, Mars rovers Curiosity and Opportunity, and the solar spacecraft SOHO, are following this trend: images taken from these spacecraft are published as soon as they’re received on Earth. This allows us to be more than just observers. We can actually feel like virtual astronauts, riding along these missions and sharing the enthusiasm with the scientists who run them. With those instant image releases by these robotic interplanetary missions, our monitors, our mobile phones, and our tablets become our windows to the universe.

There are, however, many other space missions that haven’t adapted to this model of immediate image releases. We regularly see situations when a space mission doesn’t offer rapid image releases and it leads to arguments and quarrels. The most notorious recent example was in 2014, when ESA’s Rosetta mission approached and orbited the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Despite the high public demand, the team running the OSIRIS camera refused to release the photos on time. In fact, even Jean-Jacques Dordain the former director general of ESA, had trouble obtaining them and expressed his frustration.

More recently, there have been similar concerns about the New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Juno mission that recent went into orbit around Jupiter. During the New Horizons approach, the image release policy changed from providing photos within 24 hours to doing so within 48; later, the team adopted a significantly more conservative policy of providing weekly batches of data. “I’m not going to lie to you,” Emily Lakdawalla wrote for a Planetary Society blog post in 2015, “and it hurt that the sudden halt of raw image release came as a surprise to me after I had been cheering for the mission's openness ever since the Jupiter flyby in 2007.”

This year, after Juno arrived around Jupiter, Keith Cowing criticized the mission’s image release policy. Following the orbit insertion on July 4, he wrote for NASA Watch: “At a press briefing today Juno PI [principal investigator] Scott Bolton said that they will turn on JunoCam once Juno is in orbit and may release a few ‘interesting’ images. No word when this will happen.” On August 24, Emily Lakdawalla wrote on Twitter, “I don't even know what pictures JunoCam is planning to take. Unlike Cassini & New Horizons, they've chosen to keep that info from public“. This is quite weird, because the JunoCam camera has been presented as a “public outreach camera” and is not listed as a prime science instrument. (The mission did release an image of Jupiter August 27, the same day it made a close flyby of the planet after completing its first orbit.)

Today we have more opportunities than ever to follow planetary missions in real time, yet we are frequently denied that.

The argument for the prolonged delays of image releases is usually the same: the engineers and scientists involved in the missions have invested a lot of time to design and build them. It would be fair to give them the first chance to study the photos. Yet, unlike other instruments that offer data difficult to be interpreted by non-scientists, cameras take photos with a significant public relations value that everyone can enjoy. But those cameras are still scientific instruments and the images are still hard data. If they get released fast, other scientists may interpret them first, write papers about them, and scoop those researchers who constructed and flew the missions.

However, in the cases of Cassini and Curiosity, the images that have been released on time are uncalibrated, compressed, lossy JPEG files. Their scientific usefulness is thus greatly diminished, yet their publicity value is still high. I have personally hoped that more and more principal investigators and scientists would follow this example and jump into the train of fast releases.

This hasn’t happened. In fact, I’m worried that modern planetary missions are becoming less and less open. This is extremely unfortunate, because there are people who remember that in 1986 (the pre-Internet era!), ESA showed to the public the live approach of Giotto to the nucleus of Comet Halley. During the Voyager encounters with the giant planets, the images were also streamed live on TV. Today we have more opportunities than ever to follow planetary missions in real time, yet we are frequently denied that.

So how can we solve this problem in our Western society? How can the planetary missions run by ESA and NASA be made more open? I am certain that both agencies should put more effort to adapt to the current sociological and technological trends. And adapt they must, rather than insist that people should be more patient. Society is what it is. The age of instant gratification is upon us and this is something that cannot easily change. As a proud member of the Millennial generation, I’m happy with the opportunities and the luxuries I currently have.

I believe that space advocacy organizations like The Mars Society and The Planetary Society could greatly help. It was The Planetary Society’s efforts that made the New Horizons mission possible. In the future, they should not just push for future missions, but also insist that timely image releases be a requirement for them. Thus, the principal investigators and scientists involved in the missions will know the conditions under which they’ll participate on them.

Even if cameras are not necessary for fulfilling the scientific goals, they are still important to raise public awareness.

If this suggestion sounds too drastic or entirely too radical, a compromise is still possible. Small cameras could be installed alongside the main (scientific) ones with the only purpose to take photos for immediate release to the public without any restrictions. During the early phases of the Rosetta mission, when the OSIRIS team wasn’t willing to share photos, it was the navigation camera (NAVCAM) who saved the mission’s publicity. Likewise, the Mars Express mission has a small camera. Officially planned only to take photos of the Beagle 2 lander after detachment from the orbiter, it was later repurposed as a Mars webcam: it takes photos that are quickly released in the public space, while the scientific photos from its main camera are subject to a proprietary period.

During the last few years we’ve seen more and more non-imaging missions that don’t carry visual cameras at all, like the lunar mission LADEE and the Mars mission MAVEN. Even the Schiaparelli lander, currently en route to Mars on the ExoMars mission, carries only a descent camera, which is not designed to take photos on the surface of Mars after landing. Frankly, this is a “tradition” that should stop. Even if cameras are not necessary for fulfilling the scientific goals, they are still important to raise public awareness. Modern advances in miniaturization would permit missions to carry small cameras without adding too much to their overall weight and cost.


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