Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring passed between the Small Magellanic Cloud (left) and the rich globular cluster NGC 130 on August 29, 2014. Credit: Rolando Ligustri

Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring skips between the globular clusters NGC 362 (upper left) and 47 Tucanae (NGC 104) while skirting the edge of the Small Magellanic Cloud on August 29, 2014. Credit: Rolando Ligustri

Now that’s pure gorgeous. As Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring sidles towards its October 19th encounter with Mars, it’s passing a trio of sumptuous deep sky objects near the south celestial pole this week. Astrophotographers weren’t going to let the comet’s picturesque alignments pass without notice. Rolando Ligustri captured this remarkable view using a remote, computer-controlled telescope on August 29th. It shows the rich assemblage of stars and star clusters that comprise the Small Magellanic Cloud, one of the Milky Way’s satellite galaxies located 200,000 light years away.

A photo taken one day earlier on August 28th captures the comet and NGC 362 in a tight pairing. Credit: Damian Peach

A photo taken one day earlier on August 28th captures the comet and NGC 362 in close embrace. Credit: Damian Peach

Looking like a fuzzy caterpillar, Siding Spring seems to crawl between the little globular cluster NGC 362 and the  rich swarm called 47 Tucanae, one of the few globulars bright enough to see with the naked eye. C/2013 A1 is currently circumpolar from many locations south of the equator and visible all night long. Glowing at around magnitude +9.5 with a small coma and brighter nucleus, a 6-inch or larger telescope will coax it from a dark sky. Siding Spring dips farthest south on September 2-3 (Dec. -74º) and then zooms northward for Scorpius and Sagittarius. It will encounter additional deep sky objects along the way, most notably the bright open cluster M7 on October 5-6, before passing some 82,000 miles from Mars on October 19th.

Map showing Comet Siding Spring's recent and upcoming travels near the Small Magellanic Cloud. Positions are shown nightly for Alice Springs, Australia. Source: Chris Marriott's SkyMap

Map showing Comet Siding Spring’s recent and upcoming travels near the Small Magellanic Cloud. Positions are shown nightly for Alice Springs, Australia. Source: Chris Marriott’s SkyMap

While the chance of a Mars impact is near zero, the fluffy comet’s fluffy coma and broad tail, both replete with tiny but fast-moving (~125,000 mph) dust particles, might pose a hazard for spacecraft orbiting the Red Planet. Assuming either coma or tail grows broad enough to sweep across the Martian atmosphere, impacting dust might create a spectacular meteor shower. Mars Rover cameras may be used to photograph the comet before the flyby and to capture meteors during its closest approach. NASA plans to ‘hide’ its orbiting probes on the opposite side of the planet for a brief time during the approximately 4-hour-long encounter just in case.

Today, Siding Spring’s coma or temporary atmosphere measures about 12,000 miles (19,300 km) wide. While I can’t get my hands on current dust production rates, in late January, when it was farther from the sun than at present, C/2013 A1 kicked out ~800,000 lbs per hour (~100 kg/sec). On October 19th, observers across much of the globe with 6-inch or larger instruments will witness the historic encounter with their own eyes at dusk in the constellation Sagittarius.

Inside the Operations and Checkout Building high bay at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, technicians dressed in clean-room suits install a back shell tile panel onto the Orion crew module.  Credit: NASA/Dimitri Gerondidakis

Inside the Operations and Checkout Building high bay at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, technicians dressed in clean-room suits install a back shell tile panel onto the Orion crew module. Credit: NASA/Dimitri Gerondidakis

Fabrication of the pathfinding version of NASA’s Orion crew capsule slated for its inaugural unmanned test flight in December is entering its final stages at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) launch site in Florida.

Engineers and technicians have completed the installation of Orion’s back shell panels which will protect the spacecraft and future astronauts from the searing heat of reentry and scorching temperatures exceeding 3,150 degrees Fahrenheit. [click to continue…]

Radio Telescopes Resolve Pleiades Distance Debate

by Shannon Hall on August 29, 2014

An optical image of the Pleiades. Credit: NOAO / AURA / NSF

An optical image of the Pleiades. Credit: NOAO / AURA / NSF

Fall will soon be at our doorstep. But before the leaves change colors and the smell of pumpkin fills our coffee shops, the Pleiades star cluster will mark the new season with its earlier presence in the night sky.

The delicate grouping of blue stars has been a prominent sight since antiquity. But in recent years, the cluster has also been the subject of an intense debate, marking a controversy that has troubled astronomers for more than a decade.

Now, a new measurement argues that the distance to the Pleiades star cluster measured by ESA’s Hipparcos satellite is decidedly wrong and that previous measurements from ground-based telescopes had it right all along.

[click to continue…]

Enjoy This Eye-Meltingly Awesome Photo of Our Sun

by Jason Major on August 29, 2014

Photo of the Sun captured and processed by Alan Friedman. (All rights reserved.)

Photo of the Sun captured and processed by Alan Friedman. Click for a larger version. (© Alan Friedman. All rights reserved.)

Here’s yet another glorious photo of our home star, captured and processed by New York artist and photographer Alan Friedman on August 24, 2014. Alan took the photo using his 90mm hydrogen-alpha telescope – aka “Little Big Man” –  from his backyard in Buffalo, inverted the resulting image and colorized it to create the beautiful image above. Fantastic!

[click to continue…]

Artist concept of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) 70-metric-ton configuration launching to space. SLS will be the most powerful rocket ever built for deep space missions, including to an asteroid and ultimately to Mars. Credit: NASA/MSFC

Artist concept of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) 70-metric-ton configuration launching to space. SLS will be the most powerful rocket ever built for deep space missions, including to an asteroid and ultimately to Mars. Credit: NASA/MSFC
Story updated

After a thorough review of cost and engineering issues, NASA managers formally approved the development of the agency’s mammoth heavy lift rocket – the Space Launch System or SLS – which will be the world’s most powerful rocket ever built and is intended to take astronauts farther beyond Earth into deep space than ever before possible – to Asteroids and Mars.

The maiden test launch of the SLS is targeted for November 2018 and will be configured in its initial 70-metric-ton (77-ton) version, top NASA officials announced at a briefing for reporters on Aug. 27. [click to continue…]