What if we had the ability to chase down interstellar objects passing through our Solar System, like Oumuamua or Comet Borisov? Such a spacecraft would need to be ready to go at a moment’s notice, with the capacity to increase speed and change direction quickly.
“Bringing back samples from these objects could fundamentally change our view of the universe and our place in it,” says Christopher Morrison, an engineer from the Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation-Tech (USNC-Tech) who submitted the proposal to NIAC.
We used to think we were the center of everything. That wasn’t that long ago, and even though we’ve made tremendous advancements in our understanding of our situation here in space, we still have huge blind spots.
For one, we’re only now waking up to the reality of interstellar objects passing through our Solar System.
In 2019, amateur astronomer Gennadiy Borisov discovered a comet, which now bears his name. There’s a long history of amateur astronomers discovering comets, as they approach our inner Solar System on their elongated orbits. But this one was different: it was moving much too fast to be gravitationally bound to the Sun.
It was an interstellar comet. And now, it looks like it has split into two chunks.
When the mysterious object known as ‘Oumuamua passed Earth in October of 2017, astronomers rejoiced. In addition to being the first interstellar object detected in our Solar System, but its arrival opened our eyes to how often such events take place. Since asteroids and comets are believed to be material left over from the formation of a planetary system, it also presented an opportunity to study extrasolar systems.
Unfortunately, ‘Oumuamua left our Solar System before any such studies could be conducted. Luckily, the detection of comet C/2019 Q4 (Borisov) this summer provided renewed opportunities to study material left by outgassing. Using data gathered by the William Herschel Telescope (WHT), an international team of astronomers found that 2I/Borisov contains cyanide. But as Douglas Adams would famously say, “Don’t Panic!”
Miss out on Comet 45/P Honda-Mrkos-Padadušáková last month? We’ll admit, it was fairly underwhelming in binoculars… but fear not, there are several other binocular comets in the pipeline for 2017.
Maybe you managed to catch sight of periodic Comet 2P Encke in late February after sunset before it disappeared into the Sun’s glare. Pronounced (En-Key), the comet actually passes through the field of view of the joint NASA/ESA Solar Heliospheric Observatory’s (SOHO) LASCO C3 camera from March 8th to March 14th before reemerging in the dawn sky.
I see you… Comet 2P Encke is now in SOHO’s LASCO C3 field of view, above Mercury (the bright object) moving in the opposite direction: pic.twitter.com/gcYwv0Sdkp
Northern hemisphere observers have already got a sneak peek at Encke’s performance low in the dusk in February as it heads towards perihelion. Now the comet heads southward, as it vaults up into the dawn sky for folks south of latitude 30 degrees north in mid-March. From latitude 30 degrees north, Encke will clear 15 degrees elevation above the southeastern horizon around March 31st. Viewers south of the equator will have a much better viewing prospect, as Encke glides southward through Aquarius. When will you first spot it?
Also: don’t forget to ‘spring forward’ to Daylight Saving Time this weekend for a majority of North America prior to beginning your dawn comet vigil… Europe and the United Kingdom gets a brief reprieve ’til March 26th.
Her are some upcoming key events for Comet 2P Encke:
Closest to Sun: March 10th, with a perihelion of 0.33 AU.
Closest to Earth: March 12th, at 0.65 AU distant.
Brightest: Around March 15. Encke is currently at magnitude +7, and should top out at magnitude +6, though it’ll only be 14 degrees from the Sun on this date.
Next good apparition: 0.4 AU from Earth in 2036.
This is Encke’s 63rd passage through the solar system since Pierre Méchain linked successive passages of the comet to the same in 1819. Like Edmond Halley, Encke didn’t discover the most famous of comets that now bears his name, but instead merely deduced its periodic nature. Halley was 1st, and Encke was second (hence the “2” in 2P…) The shortest short period comet, Encke was captured sometime thousands of years ago into its short period orbit, and is destined to burn out one day as it ventures from 4.1 to 0.33 AU from the Sun. Encke is also the source of the annual Taurid meteor shower in November, notable for producing a high rate of fireballs.
Comets can be elusive beasties, as all of that precious quoted magnitude is smeared out over an extended surface area. Add on top this the fact that comets are also notorious for often under- and occasionally over-performing expectations. Just look at the ‘none more black’ albedo of comet 67P Churumov-Gerasimenkochronicled by ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft: it’s a miracle we can see ’em at all. And finally, that low contrast dawn sky can easily hide a faint binocular comet, fading it to invisibility. Start your comet vigil early, sweeping the horizon with binocs. An early start and a clear view are key. The slim waning crescent Moon sits 12 degrees north of Comet Encke on the morning of March 26th, and the comet also passes less than 3 degrees from the Helix Nebula (NGC 7293) on (no joke) April Fool’s Day April 1st.
Flashback to one Encke orbit ago to 2013 and the comet provided a good dawn preshow to that biggest of cosmic let downs, Comet ISON. And although Encke makes its rounds every 3.3 years, orbital geometry assures that we won’t get another favorable viewing from Earth until 2036.
Speaking of great comets that never were, we juuuust missed having a spectacular comet this past month, when recently discovered long-period Comet 2017 E1 Borisov passes just 0.045 AU (!) interior to our orbit. Unfortunately, this occurs five months too early, with the Earth almost exactly at the wrong place in its orbit. Now, if it was only August…
Comet Teaser for 2017
Yeah, the gambler’s fallacy would tell us that we’re due for the next great comet of the century, for sure. In the meantime, we’ve still got Comets 41P/Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresák (late March/April), C/2015 ER61 PanSTARRS (May), and C/2015 V2 Johnson (June) on tap as good binocular comets in 2017.
Be sure to enjoy elusive comet Encke as it flits once more though the dawn skies.