Feel like visiting a dwarf planet today? How about a comet or the planet Mars? Luckily for us, there are sentinels across the Solar System bringing us incredible images, allowing us to browse the photos and follow in the footsteps of these machines. And yes, there are even a few lucky humans taking pictures above Earth as well.
Below — not necessarily in any order — are some of the best space photos of 2014. You’ll catch glimpses of Pluto and Ceres (big destinations of 2015) and of course Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko (for a mission that began close-up operations in 2014 and will continue next year.) Enjoy!
Feeling lucky? Events such as the Comet Siding Spring approach by Mars in October only happen about once every eight million years, according to NASA.
And after we were treated to spectacular views from the agency’s spacecraft (see Curiosity and Opportunity and MAVEN, for example), we now have fresh pictures this month from an Indian mission. Also, NASA has released science results suggesting that the chemistry of Mars’ atmosphere could be changed forever from the close encounter.
“The image in the center shows a streak … radiating out of the comet’s nucleus (out of frame), possibly indicating the jet from [the] comet’s nucleus,” the Indian Science Research Organisation wrote of the above image sequence on its Facebook mission page.
“Usually jets represent outgassing activity from [the] vents of the comet-nucleus, releasing dust and ice crystals. The outgassing activity gradually increases as the comet moves closer to the Sun.”
The comet’s dust likely produced a meteor shower or meteor storm when particles from it crashed into the upper atmosphere, which “literally changed the chemistry,” added Jim Green, director of NASA’s planetary science division, in a recent discussion highlighted on an agency blog.
The agency says the dust created vaporized metals, which will eventually transform to dust or “meteoric smoke.” MAVEN (which stands for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN) will be monitoring the long-term effects. Possible results include high-altitude clouds or at the most extreme, maybe permanently altering what the chemistry of the atmosphere is. Not a bad thing for a mission to study shortly after it arrived at Mars.
When Comet Siding Spring skimmed just 84,500 miles from Mars last month, NASA’s Opportunity and Curiosity Rovers – along with several orbiting Mars spacecraft – readied their cameras to record the historic flyby. Opportunity’s photos revealed a small, fuzzy blob against the stars of Cetus the Whale, but most of us searched in vain to find any trace of the comet among the blizzard of noise in pictures snapped by Curiosity. Yet it may be there after all.
In this panoramic image at top, assembled and processed by James Sorenson to remove the pervasive noise in the original photos, we see with a twilit landscape just after sundown. Look closely in the upper left hand corner and you’ll see a speck of light. That’s it! Combined with positional information, Sorenson tentatively identified that pixel as Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring. OK, it’s not much to look at but may be our best candidate for the hoped-for photo from Curiosity.
Remember that conditions were far from ideal when the picture was taken. There was considerable dust and haze in the Martian atmosphere over Gale Crater. Dust effectively absorbs and also scatters light. The bright twilight sky only made the comet more difficult to discern. If you’ve ever struggled to see Mercury at dusk on a hazy summer evening, you’ll understand what our robot was up against.
The European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter also chimed in with a recent set of comet images. As it flew by, Siding Spring was traveling at around 35 miles per second (56 km/sec) relative to Mars. Images were acquired at 17-second intervals at a resolution of 10.5 miles (17 km) per pixel. What do they show? The irregular shape might make you might think you’re seeing the actual shape of the comet’s nucleus. Unfortunately, that’s impossible because it’s less than a kilometer across and each pixel in the photo spans 17 km. Instead, we’re seeing the combined light of the nucleus and extended coma, the surrounding cloud of gas and dust. Why the images are pure black and white with no grey tones is unclear.
According to NASA, CRISM observed 107 different wavelengths of light in each pixel. Here, only three colors are shown. Researchers think the appearance of color variations in the inner coma could be due to the properties of the comet’s dust, possibly dust grain size or composition. More photos and results from all the spacecraft will appear in the weeks and months ahead as scientists continue their analyses.
Comet Siding Spring has left Mars and its crew of robotic eyes behind as it crawls north into the constellation Serpens low in the southwest at dusk. Amateur astronomers are still keen to photograph it at every opportunity. Recent observations indicate a temporary re-brightening, though the comet remains a dim 11th magnitude object.
As Comet Siding Spring passed close by Mars on Sunday (Oct. 19), NASA’s newest Mars spacecraft took a time-out from its commissioning to grab some ultraviolet pictures of its coma. What you see above is hydrogen, a whole lot of it, leaving the comet in this picture taken from 5.3 million miles (8.5 million kilometers).
The hydrogen is a product of the water ice on the comet that the Sun is slowly melting and breaking apart into hydrogen and oxygen molecules. Because hydrogen scatters ultraviolet light from the Sun, it shows up rather clearly in this picture taken by the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft.
Check out more recent pictures of Siding Spring below.
Above are two separate exposures taken Oct. 18-19 EDT (Oct. 18-20 UTC) against the same starry field image from another survey. It was a complicated shot to get, NASA explains, but it does serve as a powerful illustration of the celestial close encounter.
“This is a composite image because a single exposure of the stellar background, comet Siding Spring, and Mars would be problematic. Mars is actually 10,000 times brighter than the comet, and so could not be properly exposed to show detail in the Red Planet,” NASA stated.
“The comet and Mars were also moving with respect to each other and so could not be imaged simultaneously in one exposure without one of the objects being motion blurred. Hubble had to be programmed to track on the comet and Mars separately in two different observations.”
The two images were blended together in this single shot, showing their separation of 1.5 arc minutes (1/20 of the Moon’s apparent diameter.) The background stars comes from data from the Palomar Digital Sky Survey “reprocessed to approximate Hubble’s resolution”, NASA stated.
While the nucleus is too small to be imaged by Hubble, you can see what it looks like in the image above from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Siding Spring passed by the Red Planet at a distance of just 87,000 miles (140,000 km).
NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) orbiter is oh-so-close to its destination after a 10-month journey. It’s scheduled to arrive in orbit Sunday (Sept. 21) around 9:50 p.m. EDT (1:50 a.m. UTC) if all goes well, but there are a few things that need to happen, in order, first.
One big obstacle is already out of the way. MAVEN controllers had expected to do final engine burn tweaks to put it on the right trajectory, but the mission is so on-target that it won’t be needed.
“#MAVEN orbit insertion sequence has been activated on the s/c. No additional ground intervention is needed to enter #Mars’ orbit on Sunday,” the official account tweeted yesterday (Sept. 18).
So what does the sequence entail? MAVEN will need to turn on its six thruster engines for a 33-minute braking maneuver to slow it down. This will allow the gravity of Mars to “capture” the spacecraft into an elliptical or oval-shaped orbit.
Should that all go safely, MAVEN still has a lot of work to do before being ready to capture information about the upper atmosphere of the Red Planet. All spacecraft go through a commissioning phase to ensure their instruments are working correctly and that they are in the correct orbit and orientation to do observations.
Controllers are interested in learning about the comet and its effect on the upper atmosphere, so they will stop the commissioning to make those measurements. MAVEN will also be oriented in such a way that its solar panels are protected as much as possible from the dust, although scientists now believe the risk of strikes is very low.
MAVEN is expected to work at Mars for a year, but investigators are hoping it will be for longer so that the atmosphere can be tracked through more of a solar cycle. The Sun’s activity is a major influencer on the atmosphere and the “stripping” of molecules from it over time, which could have thinned Mars’ atmosphere in the ancient past.
The spacecraft will also serve as a backup communications and data relay for the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers on the surface, which might be needed if some of the older NASA Mars spacecraft that fulfill that function experience technical difficulties.
MAVEN to conduct up close observations of Comet Siding Spring during Oct. 2014 MAVEN is NASA’s next Mars Orbiter and will investigate how the planet lost most of its atmosphere and water over time. Credit: NASA
NASA’s MAVEN Mars Orbiter is “ideally” instrumented to uniquely “map the composition of Comet Siding Spring” in great detail when it streaks past the Red Planet during an extremely close flyby on Oct. 19, 2014 – thereby providing a totally “unexpected science opportunity … and a before and after look at Mars atmosphere,” Prof. Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN’s Principal Investigator of CU-Boulder, CO, told Universe Today in an exclusive interview.
The probes state-of-the-art ultraviolet spectrograph will be the key instrument making the one-of-a-kind compositional observations of this Oort cloud comet making its first passage through the inner solar system on its millions year orbital journey.
“MAVEN’s Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph (IUVS) is the ideal way to observe the comet coma and tail,” Jakosky explained.
“The IUVS can do spectroscopy that will allow derivation of compositional information.”
“It will do imaging of the entire coma and tail, allowing mapping of composition.”
Moreover the UV spectrometer is the only one of its kind amongst NASA’s trio of Martian orbiters making its investigations completely unique.
“IUVS is the only ultraviolet spectrometer that will be observing the comet close up, and that gives the detailed compositional information,” Jakosky elaborated
And MAVEN, or the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, is arriving just in the nick of time to fortuitously capture this fantastically rich data set of a pristine remnant from the solar system’s formation.
The spacecraft reaches Mars in less than 15 days. It will rendezvous with the Red Planet on Sept. 21 after a 10 month interplanetary journey from Earth.
Furthermore, since MAVEN’s purpose is the first ever detailed study of Mars upper atmosphere, it will get a before and after look at atmospheric changes.
“We’ll take advantage of this unexpected science opportunity to make observations both of the comet and of the Mars upper atmosphere before and after the comet passage – to look for any changes,” Jakosky stated.
How do MAVEN’s observations compare to NASA’s other orbiters Mars Odyssey (MO) and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), I asked?
“The data from the other orbiters will be complementary to the data from IUVS.”
“Visible light imaging from the other orbiters provides data on the structure of dust in the coma and tail. And infrared imaging provides information on the dust size distribution.”
IUVS is one of MAVENS’s nine science sensors in three instrument suites targeted to study why and exactly when did Mars undergo the radical climatic transformation.
How long will MAVEN make observations of Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring?
“We’ll be using IUVS to look at the comet itself, about 2 days before comet nucleus closest approach.”
“In addition, for about two days before and two days after nucleus closest approach, we’ll be using one of our “canned” sequences to observe the upper atmosphere and solar-wind interactions.”
“This will give us a detailed look at the upper atmosphere both before and after the comet, allowing us to look for differences.”
Describe the risk that Comet Siding Spring poses to MAVEN, and the timing?
“We have the encounter with Comet Siding Spring about 2/3 of the way through the commissioning phase we call transition.”
“We think that the risk to the spacecraft from comet dust is minimal, but we’ll be taking steps to reduce the risk even further so that we can move on toward our science mission.”
“Throughout this entire period, though, spacecraft and instrument health and safety come first.”
What’s your overall hope and expectation from the comet encounter?
“Together [with the other orbiters], I’m hoping it will all provide quite a data set!
“From Mars, the comet truly will fill the sky!” Jakosky gushed.
The comet’s nucleus will fly by Mars at a distance of only about 82,000 miles (132,000 kilometers) at 2:28 p.m. ET (18:28 GMT) on Oct. 19, 2014. That’s barely 1/3 the distance from the Earth to the Moon.
What’s the spacecraft status today?
“Everything is on track.”
The $671 Million MAVEN spacecraft’s goal is to study Mars upper atmosphere to explore how the Red Planet lost most of its atmosphere and water over billions of years and the transition from its ancient, water-covered past, to the cold, dry, dusty world that it has become today.
MAVEN soared to space over nine months ago on Nov. 18, 2013 following a flawless blastoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 atop a powerful Atlas V rocket and thus began a 10 month interplanetary voyage from Earth to the Red Planet.
It is streaking to Mars along with ISRO’sMOM orbiter, which arrives a few days later on September 24, 2014.
So far it has traveled 95% of the distance to the Red Planet, amounting to over 678,070,879 km (421,332,902 mi).
As of Sept. 4, MAVEN was 205,304,736 km (127,570,449 miles) from Earth and 4,705,429 km (2,923,818 mi) from Mars. Its Earth-centered velocity is 27.95 km/s (17.37 mi/s or 62,532 mph) and Sun-centered velocity is 22.29 km/s (13.58 mi/s or 48,892 mph) as it moves on its heliocentric arc around the Sun.
One-way light time from MAVEN to Earth is 11 minutes and 24 seconds.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing MAVEN, MOM, Rosetta, Opportunity, Curiosity, Mars rover and more Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.
As Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring inches closer to the Red Planet, NASA’s taking steps to protect its fleet of orbiting Mars spacecraft. On October 19, the comet’s icy nucleus will miss the planet by just 82,000 miles (132,000 km). That’s 17 times closer than the closest recorded Earth-approaching comet, Lexell’s Comet in 1770.
No one’s worried about the tiny nucleus doing any damage. It’ll zip right by. Rather it’s dust particles embedded in vaporizing ice that concern NASA planners. Dust spreads into a broad tail that could potentially brush Mars’ upper atmosphere and strike an orbiter. A single particle of debris half a millimeter across may not seem like your mortal enemy, but when it’s traveling at 35 miles (56 km) per second relative to the spacecraft, one hit could spell trouble.
“Three expert teams have modeled this comet for NASA and provided forecasts for its flyby of Mars,” explained Rich Zurek, chief scientist for the Mars Exploration Program at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “The hazard is not an impact of the comet nucleus, but the trail of debris coming from it. Using constraints provided by Earth-based observations, the modeling results indicate that the hazard is not as great as first anticipated. Mars will be right at the edge of the debris cloud, so it might encounter some of the particles — or it might not.”
The agency’s taking a prudent approach. NASA currently operates the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and Mars Odyssey spacecraft with a third orbiter, MAVEN, currently on its way to the planet and expected to settle into orbit a month before the comet flyby. Teams operating the orbiters plan to have all spacecraft positioned on the opposite side of Mars when the comet is most likely to pass by.
Already, mission planners tweaked MRO’s orbit on July 2 to move it toward a safe position with a second maneuver to follow on August 27. A similar adjustment is planned for Mars Odyssey on August 5 and October 9 for the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) probe. The time of greatest risk to the spacecraft is brief – about 20 minutes – when the widest part of the comet’s tail passes closest to the planet.
One question I’m always asked is whether the Mars rovers are in any danger of dust-producing meteors in the comet’s wake. While the planet might get peppered with a meteor shower, its atmosphere is thick enough to incinerate cometary dust particles before they reach the surface, not unlike what happens during a typical meteor shower here on Earth. Rover cameras may be used to photograph the comet before the flyby and to capture meteors during the comet’s closest approach.
Despite concerns about dust, NASA knows a good opportunity when it sees one. In the days before and after the flyby, all three orbiters will conduct studies on the comet.
According to a recent NASA press release, instruments on MRO and Odyssey will examine the nucleus, coma and tail and possible effects on the Martian atmosphere:
“Odyssey will study thermal and spectral properties of the comet’s coma and tail. MRO will monitor Mars’ atmosphere for possible temperature increases and cloud formation, as well as changes in electron density at high altitudes and MAVEN will study gases coming off the comet’s nucleus as it’s warmed by the sun. The team anticipates this event will yield detailed views of the comet’s nucleus and potentially reveal its rotation rate and surface features.”
This is Comet Siding Spring’s first trip to the inner solar system. Expect exciting news as we peer up close at pristine ices and dust that have been locked in deep freeze since the time the planets formed.
For more information on the event, check out this NASA website devoted to the comet.
As 2014 opens, most of the half dozen comets traversing the morning and evening sky are faint and require detailed charts and a good-sized telescope to see and appreciate. Except for Comet Lovejoy. This gift to beginner and amateur astronomers alike keeps on giving. But wait, there’s more. Three additional binocular-bright comets will keep us busy starting this spring.
Still glowing around the naked eye limit at magnitude 6, the Lovejoy remains easy to see in binoculars from dark skies as it tracks from southern Hercules into Ophiuchus in the coming weeks.
The best time to view the comet is shortly before the start of dawn when it sails highest in the eastern sky at an altitude of around 30 degrees or “three fists” up from the horizon. By January’s end, the comet will still be 25 degrees high in a dark sky. My last encounter with Lovejoy was a week ago when 10×50 binoculars revealed a bright coma and 1.5 degree long tail to the northwest. Through the telescope the stark contrast between bright, compact nucleus and gauzy coma struck me as one of the most beautiful sights I’d seen all month.
Looking ahead to 2014 there are at present three comets beside Lovejoy that are expected to wax bright enough to see in binoculars and possibly with the naked eye: C/2012 K1 PanSTARRS, C/2013 V5 Oukaimeden and C/2013 A1 Siding Spring The first lurks in Hercules but come early April should bulk up to magnitude 9.5, bright enough to track in a small telescope for northern hemisphere observers. Watch K1 PANSTARRS amble from Bootes across the Big Dipper and down through Leo from mid-spring through late June hitting magnitude 7.5 before disappearing in the summer twilight glow. K1 will be your go-to comet during convenient viewing hours.
Come early September after K1 PANSTARRS leaves the sun’s ken, it reappears in the morning sky, traveling westward from Hydra into Puppis. Southern hemisphere observers are now favored, but northerners won’t suffer too badly. The comet is expected to crest to magnitude 5.5 in mid-October just before it dips too far south for easy viewing at mid-northern latitudes.
Comet C/2013 V5 (Oukaimeden), discovered November 15 at Oukaimeden Observatory in Marrekesh, Morocco. Preliminary estimates place the comet at around magnitude 5.5 in mid-September. It should reach binocular visibility in late August in Monoceros the Unicorn east of Orion in the pre-dawn sky before disappearing in the twilight glow for mid-northern latitude observers. Southern hemisphere skywatchers will see the comet at its best and brightest before dawn in early September and at dusk later that month.
2014’s most anticipated comet has to be C/2013 A1 Siding Spring, expected to reach magnitude 7.5 and become binocular-worthy for southern hemisphere skywatchers as it traverses the southern circumpolar constellations this September. Northerners will have to wait until early October for the comet to climb into the evening sky by way of Scorpius and Sagittarius. Watch for an 8th magnitude hazy glow in the southwestern sky at that time.
As October ticks by, A1 Siding Spring creeps closer and closer to Mars until it overlaps the planet on the 19th. Normally, a comet will only appear to pass in front of stars and deep sky objects because it’s in the same line of sight. Not this time. Siding Spring may actually “touch” Mars for real.
On October 19 the comet will pass so close to the planet that its outer coma or atmosphere may envelop Mars and spark a meteor shower. The sight of a bright planet smack in the middle of a comet’s head should be something quite wonderful to see through a telescope.
While the list of predicted comets is skimpy and arguably not bright in the sense of headliners like Hale-Bopp in 1997 or even L4 PANSTARRS from last spring, all should be visible in binoculars from a dark sky site.
Every year new comets are discovered, some of which can swiftly brighten and put on a great show like Comet Lovejoy (discovered Sept. 7) did last fall and continues to do. In 2013, 64 new comets were found, 14 of them by amateur astronomers. Comets with the potential to make us ooh and aah are out there – we just have to find them.