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NASA Scientists Discuss Potential Comet Impact on Mars

There is a small but non-negligible chance that Comet 2013 A1 will hit Mars October of 2014. According the latest calculations from JPL, the comet is estimated to come within 120,000 kilometers (74,000 miles). In this video, various NASA scientists discuss the potential impact, and invariably view such an impact as scientifically very intriguing.

“I think of it as a giant climate experiment,” said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for the Mars Exploration Program. “An impact would loft a lot of stuff into the Martian atmosphere–dust, sand, water and other debris. The result could be a warmer, wetter Mars than we’re accustomed to today.”

The orbit diagram for Comet 2013 A1 as it will approach Mars in October, 2014.

The orbit diagram for Comet 2013 A1 as it will approach Mars in October, 2014.

An impact would likely have consequences for the current rovers on Mars. Meyer said the solar-powered Opportunity might have a hard time surviving if the atmosphere became opaque. Nuclear-powered Curiosity, though, would carry on just fine. He also notes that Mars orbiters might have trouble seeing the surface, for a while at least, until the debris begins to clear.

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.

Scientists estimate the nucleus of the comet is about 1 to 3 km in diameter. If it gets close to Mars and is grabbed by its gravity,and IF there was an impact it would be a substantial hit. “If it does hit Mars, it would deliver as much energy as 35 million megatons of TNT,” said Don Yeomans of NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program at JPL. According to what Yeomans says in this video, the current odds of it hitting Mars is about 1 in 2,000, but according to the parameters at JPL’s website, it appears the odds are about 1 in 10,000.

Source: Science@NASA

About 

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

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Shootist March 28, 2013, 9:44 PM

    At least the nucleus diameter is down from the original 50km the initial news reports had suggested to a more reasonable 1-3km. Though, I must say, the prospects of watching the consequences of the formation of a new Argyre sized crater was mouth watering.

    • Aqua4U March 28, 2013, 9:56 PM

      I was typing my response to this story when I saw your new posting appear – we both caught that 50 km dia thang! ~@; )

  • Aqua4U March 28, 2013, 9:46 PM

    Great update… early estimates of the coma being 50 km diameter were WAY off! This puts it back into a more ‘normally’ sized range. I am fascinated with the idea that if this comet passes close enough, it may be shattered by the encounter, similar to C. Shoemaker/Levy 9? Of course that comet was fractured by a close encounter with Jupiter, a vastly deeper gravity well. But a close encounter with Mars could still do the deed? THEN the question becomes, where do the pieces get ‘flung’?

  • Zoutsteen from Holland March 28, 2013, 10:11 PM

    we could give it a test nudge en do science

  • Me March 29, 2013, 1:11 AM

    50km or 1-3km’s, still huge. Of course 50km’s is much more massive, but 35M-tons of tnt is a mind boggling firecracker. Like in other recent posts, I fear Eden Earth is in the firing line of some awesome sized object out there. We need more R&D for protection for our Eden Earth, ..period. Take care.

    • I3VI5 March 30, 2013, 2:34 AM

      People like you don’t have to worry. God will protect you. He certainly does not want “Eden Earth” to be distroyed after only 5,000 years.

      • Me March 30, 2013, 3:11 AM

        Your youth is getting in your way. Where did you see me type the earth is 5,000 yrs old? In fact, biblical people believe it is 6,000 yrs old w/1,000 yrs to go till 7,000 & the ‘end’ of the world as we know it. The last time I checked, the planet is 4.5-billion yrs old. I do believe in biblical studies. If you do not, that is your issue, not mind. Open minds are the best. People like you are ignorant of the fact one of those rocks will air-blast a city or worst if an iron core. And size matters. Take care…remember to duck someday!

        • I3VI5 March 30, 2013, 3:31 AM

          I didn’t say we should not do anything regarding the asteroid threat. I just said religious people like yourself should not worry since your god will protect you.

          And congratulation on not believing the earth is 6,000 years old, you are not complete idiot.

          • Me March 30, 2013, 3:49 AM

            What? I am only a half idiot? Well, that is a huge relief to me. An opinion is like a brain, we all got one.(I’d would type/say a ‘butt-hole’, but I just cannot).

            God? Easy to know & see your not a open minded person. Also you are much younger than I. Yes, I am religious, spiritual & humble some what. I also believe in the paranormal. They are all too real. There are different area’s, but they are all very real. Yes, there are nutty people out there. You must take & put things into prospective. Common sense applies. Remember, open your mind. It works.

          • I3VI5 March 30, 2013, 9:42 AM

            Oh I’m an extremely open minded person. I just need facts or at least logical arguments before I can be convinced on a new idea.
            Religion on the other hand requires you to take things on faith. Now why should I trust something written in an old book?! Especially if that something makes absolutely no sense?
            If you believe in the paranormal or any other religious stuff, can you please tell me what’s the difference between you and a mentally ill individual? They also believe in what they see.

            As for being humble, I don’t think it applies to religious people. You guys invented an invisible man in the sky, just to make yourself feel important and at the center of the universe.

          • Me March 30, 2013, 3:53 PM

            Do NOT group people who are in groups such as religion or your group, brain dead & inner-soul-dead or better known as “Atheists”. . Belief is one thing, & personalities are another. Age is one thing, but if you were 12 yrs old & seen things. Then age does not matter. It really is called, Blessing or Grace from the one who Created all. Actually you want to believe. Who doesn’t want Eternal life? Sure you do. You gotta be a damn idiot fool not to WANT to believe. But you need “evidence”, “facts” to touch & see. You will in time. But if not, then oh well. Key is “PRAYER”.
            What I know is fact. I cannot show you w/proof. It’s very frustrating to me reading you & others insults. Your incompetence.will subside hopefully w/age. I do not have proof what I know. Damn, if I was a Vulcan we could mind-mull…lol …I think its spelled that way.

            When a person who see’s a UFO, & I do mean up close & personal. A guy like you would call him what you call me. NUTS & etc’s.. .This I know is a fact in life===>”IF YOU HAVE NOT BEEN THERE & DONE THAT, SHUT UP” . Spirits are REAL. UFO are REAL to those who seen them. To me it’s dimensional.. I have not seen a UFO, but I do not go around saying ‘they’.are fools, etc.. .

            Prayer is so needed. Mother Theresa for 35 yrs had what they call, “spiritual empty-ness”. Imagine that. A woman who fed, helped & gave her life for others was spiritually dead for 35+ yrs! God is freaky to me in His ways. We do not think like Him. The Bible is NOT a science book either. It contradicts itself in areas. Like God said to Joshua, “kill all living things” after they won a battle in a village. Joshua did not. He paid for his normal feelings killing woman, children & animals. That means all woman, children, & animals! Damn, I felt God is so CRUEL! Then I read deeper & deeper in other books documents etc.. . I still couldn’t get it. Then one day not too long ago, I was in prayer & was given a inner vision w/feeling that was so powerful. I freaked! WOW, what a thing to happen to someone!! Damned if I can explain it. But it was so very very real! You & whom ever can call me what you all will/want. I could give a rats ass! I know there is life after death. And again, I just cannot prove it factually nor articulate it nor have you touch it. Near death experience’s are a life changing happening to all that have them. Why call them “nuts’ idiots’ or ‘figments of their imaginations’ for? Again…if you have not been there & done that, shut the %4&@ up!

            So with all of what I typed/said(I could say explain more). I have been Blessed & Graced to see & feel what I did. Why me? PRAYER! Try it for awhile. Takes some time, but it works! U B Kool ;-)… .

          • I3VI5 March 31, 2013, 2:33 AM

            Whatever man, there’s no point in arguing. You have the right to believe in whatever kind of magic you like, from Santa Claus to Jesus. There’s nothing I can say that can make you change your mind. So… take care.

          • Me March 31, 2013, 3:30 AM

            lol…ok…Whatever? Don’t want to argue? I wasn’t or wanted to..I didn’t call you names, you did to me. I responded in laughter & gave you your own medicine back.Taste good?
            Santa Claus vs the Creator? Although the Saint that was the real Santa Claus of many hundreds of yrs ago was all too real. No red suit depictions of today …lol. Just a different era & soulful ways. Wow are your so correct. No way will I believe in ‘nothing’. Its energy. The Shroud of Turin is one large clue. From Fatima in 1917 to Mexico City in the 1500’s was real. I know you haven’t looked into them w/a objective mind. If your that soulfully blind & deaf its all on you. You see. If your correct, then I suffer nothing. Dead is dead as you would say put it..But if I am correct, your will see the real light of creation saying. You denied me, should I deny you?
            You be kool my friend. God Bless anyways.

  • Kevin Frushour March 29, 2013, 3:18 AM

    I’m glad martians can’t see us here.

    1 in 2000 chance of hitting Earth: Mass panic

    1 in 2000 chance of hitting Mars: Whoo-hoo!

  • torque xtr March 29, 2013, 5:41 AM

    Partial anticipation quenching aside, purely technical question remains :-) 50 km -> 1-3 km. An object, say, 20 times smaller, reflects 400 times less sunlight and is whole 7 magnitudes dimmer, if albedo is the same. How could such enormous overestimation occur? Even if half of that comes from size, and half from albedo, and the 2-km nucleus is snow-bright, the respecting 50-km object must be more than coal-black, it mst be blacker than cometary black!

  • Chetan Chauhan March 29, 2013, 10:29 AM

    What are the chances of it getting deflected off Mars and then heading straight for Earth in a curveball ? Satellites do these slingshot maneuvers all the time.

    I’m sure the odds would be orders of magnitude lower , but they still exist.

    • Andrew Meronek March 29, 2013, 1:13 PM

      Given that large difference in relative inertia between the comet and Mars, I would suspect that such a large slingshot isn’t possible. Mars may not be big enough to sling a comet moving as fast as this one all that much.

    • Philip Wilson March 29, 2013, 1:26 PM

      The chance is zero.

    • Olaf2 March 29, 2013, 7:04 PM

      None.

      Satellites that slingshot have active steering capabilities to fine tune their orbit through course correction. Every tiny error in the orbit decrease the chance dramatically.

    • phelanka7 April 1, 2013, 12:57 PM

      As you might be able to tell from the picture of it’s trajectory the comet would need to move much slower to even be pointed at Earth’s orbital path around the Sun. And then it would need to coincide with the Earth being at that specific point in it’s orbit.

  • Ernest Stefan Matyus March 29, 2013, 1:06 PM

    What about sending a spacecraft to alter the comet’s path just a little so it does impact? Is it too late for something like that?
    It would be a great exercise in case we would ever need to defect one from Earth. Also studying the impact may help us better understand how a similar event would unfold on our own planet in case of a collision.

    • Philip Wilson March 29, 2013, 1:25 PM

      Time & money aside we have no spacecraft that can alter the orbit of a 3Km sized object. Spacecraft struggle to alter their own orbits. Think of the mass of the comet relative to a spacecraft weighing at most a few thousand pounds.

      • Ernest Stefan Matyus March 29, 2013, 2:45 PM

        I was thinking of something like a huge rocket which can land on the object then start a bun to nudge it the right way,
        or something a bit more extreme: a few well timed nuclear detonations close enough to the object may do the trick. but not to close otherwise we may destroy it.

        however, the main issue would be building the thing and getting it to outside the orbit of mars in about 1.5 years. It would also have to accelerate to a velocity close to that of the comet in a short time.
        Though if one would take the second approach, we do have a lot of nuclear charges that can be fitted on top of rockets, all we have to do is get them to the right place, so we just may get them into position in time. As to weather it would even work, weeeell I say we would need to run some simulations before we try.

        • David Parenti March 29, 2013, 6:40 PM

          Landing a “push” rocket would not be the best way. These objects are normally spinning/rotating in multiple axes. The most feasible way is the Gravity Tractor, park a spacecraft near it and use gravity to alter it’s orbit. Of course the mass of the spacecraft is important, if small it would take a long time.

          • Ernest Stefan Matyus April 3, 2013, 2:02 PM

            Hmm the only feasible way to build a large enough gravity tractor would be to capture some asteroids an strap engines on them, otherwise it would take decades. Of course there’s the matter of getting enough fuel to accelerate something that large up into orbit. A rocket on the other hand could be timed to burn only at certain times so to nudge the comet the right way. It could be done with a rotating object if one does the math right.
            However I fear that we may not have time to do even that given the tight timetable.

    • David Parenti March 29, 2013, 6:42 PM

      The “Red Mars” book series speculated on terraforming Mars in this way (and others).

    • Me March 31, 2013, 12:00 AM

      In other posts I said & meant this very thing you articulated so well. It must be brought up from the back burner to the front burner now. Last month a Russian colleague’s family homestead in Russia had their windows shattered. Their oak shed crumbled beyond repair. That air-blast was 40 miles away from their property. It hurt over 1,000 people & caused many millions of $’s in property damage. If it would of been a Tunguska type blast. We are exacting so many lives. The monetary damages would of been astronomical. Great insight Mr. Matyus. Take care :-)…

  • Prism2Spectrum April 7, 2013, 12:17 PM

    Interesting, well done video.

    Remarks about altering a Comet’s course make me nervous – even if it were possible to influence such a hurtling mass in Space. Would the scientists be so sure of the compositional makeup of Comets (or could they be so certain of a particular Comet’s interior structure), and how the laws of physics would operate in a given scenario played out in interplanetary Space, that they could be confident to avoid any adverse risk of fragmenting an incoming Comet; or nudging it in an unforeseen – wrong – direction?

    The hands-on interference of man with the natural forces of his Homeworld, close-up and personal, does not inspire great promise on the possible outcomes of such an audacious, large-scale attempt, as redirecting a Comet into another world for experimental purposes. He might seek to achieve one thing, and wind-up accomplishing something quite different.

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