Update on the Comet that Might Hit Mars

by Nancy Atkinson on March 5, 2013

The latest trajectory of comet 2013 A1 (Siding Spring) generated by the Near-Earth Object Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory indicates the comet will pass within 186,000 miles (300,000 kilometers) of Mars and there is a strong possibility that it might pass much closer. The NEO Program Office’s current estimate based on observations through March 1, 2013, has it passing about 31,000 miles (50,000 kilometers) from the Red Planet’s surface. That distance is about two-and-a-half times that of the orbit of outermost moon, Deimos.

Previous estimates put it on a possible collision course with Mars.

This video, above, is based on comet’s orbit calculated by Leonid Elenin, which has it is coming within 58,000 km, and visualized by SpaceEngine software.

The trajectory for comet Siding Spring is being refined as more observations are made. Rob McNaught discovered this comet on Jan. 3, 2013, at Siding Spring Observatory in Australia, and looking back at archival observations has unearthed more images of the comet, extending the observation interval back to Oct. 4, 2012. Further refinement to its orbit is expected as more observational data is obtained.

“At present, Mars lies within the range of possible paths for the comet and the possibility of an impact cannot be excluded,” said an update today from JPL. “However, since the impact probability is currently less than one in 600, future observations are expected to provide data that will completely rule out a Mars impact.”

Simulation of the close approach of C/2013 A1 to Mars in Celestia using info from the Minor Planet Center.  Credit: Ian Musgrave/Astroblog.

Simulation of the close approach of C/2013 A1 to Mars in Celestia using info from the Minor Planet Center. Credit: Ian Musgrave/Astroblog.

JPL’s update also outlined how during the close Mars approach, the comet will likely achieve a total visual magnitude of zero or brighter, as seen from Mars-based spacecraft. From Earth, the comet is not expected to reach naked eye brightness, but it may become bright enough (about magnitude 8) that it could be viewed from the southern hemisphere in mid-September 2014, using binoculars, or small telescopes.

Siding Spring likely originated from the Oort cloud. Amateur and professional astronomers will be keeping an eye on this comet’s trajectory to determine if it will end up hitting Mars or not.

Source: JPL

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

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