Caterpillar Comet Poses for Pictures En Route to Mars

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.

New Calculations Effectively Rule Out Comet Impacting Mars in 2014

NASA’s Near-Earth Object Office says that new observations of comet C/2013 A1 (Siding Spring) have allowed further refinements of the comet’s orbit, helping to determine the chances it could hit Mars in October of 2014. Shortly after its discovery in December 2012, astronomers thought there was an outside chance that a newly discovered comet might be on a collision course with Mars.

While the latest orbital plot places the comet’s closest approach to Mars slightly closer than previous estimates, the new data now significantly reduces the probability the comet will impact the Red Planet, JPL said, from about 1 in 8,000 to about 1 in 120,000.

The closest approach is now estimated at about 68,000 miles (110,000 kilometers). The most previous estimates had it whizzing by at 186,000 miles (300,000 kilometers).

The latest estimated time for close approach to Mars is about 11:51 a.m. PDT (18:51 UTC) on Oct. 19, 2014. At the time of closest approach, the comet will be on the sunward side of the planet.

The comet was discovered in the beginning of 2013 by comet-hunter Robert McNaught at the Siding Spring Observatory in New South Wales, Australia. When the discovery was initially made, astronomers at the Catalina Sky Survey in Arizona looked back over their observations to find “prerecovery” images of the comet dating back to Dec. 8, 2012. These observations placed the orbital trajectory of comet C/2013 A1 right through Mars orbit on Oct. 19, 2014.

JPL says future observations of the comet are expected to refine the orbit further. The most up-to-date close-approach data can be found at JPL’s Small Body Database.

Source: JPL

Is a Comet on a Collision Course with Mars?

There is an outside chance that a newly discovered comet might be on a collision course with Mars. Astronomers are still determining the trajectory of the comet, named C/2013 A1 (Siding Spring), but at the very least, it is going to come fairly close to the Red Planet in October of 2014. “Even if it doesn’t impact it will look pretty good from Earth, and spectacular from Mars,” wrote Australian amateur astronomer Ian Musgrave, “probably a magnitude -4 comet as seen from Mars’s surface.”

The comet was discovered in the beginning of 2013 by comet-hunter Robert McNaught at the Siding Spring Observatory in New South Wales, Australia. According to a discussion on the IceInSpace amateur astronomy forum when the discovery was initially made, astronomers at the Catalina Sky Survey in Arizona looked back over their observations to find “prerecovery” images of the comet dating back to Dec. 8, 2012. These observations placed the orbital trajectory of comet C/2013 A1 right through Mars orbit on Oct. 19, 2014.

However, now after 74 days of observations, comet specialist Leonid Elenin notes that current calculations put the closest approach of the comet at a distance of 109,200 km, or 0.00073 AU from Mars in October 2014. That close pass has many wondering if any of the Mars orbiters might be able to acquire high-resolution images of the comet as it passes by.

But as Ian O’Neill from Discovery Space points out, since the comet has only been observed for 74 days (so far), so it’s difficult for astronomers to forecast the comet’s precise location in 20 months time. “Comet C/2013 A1 may fly past at a very safe distance of 0.008 AU (650,000 miles),” Ian wrote, “but to the other extreme, its orbital pass could put Mars directly in its path. At time of Mars close approach (or impact), the comet will be barreling along at a breakneck speed of 35 miles per second (126,000 miles per hour).”

Elenin said that since C/2013 A1 is a hyperbolic comet and moves in a retrograde orbit, its velocity with respect to the planet will be very high, approximately 56 km/s. “With the current estimate of the absolute magnitude of the nucleus M2 = 10.3, which might indicate the diameter up to 50 km, the energy of impact might reach the equivalent of staggering 2×10¹º megatons!”

An impact of this magnitude would leave a crater 500 km across and 2 km deep, Elenin said.

Fragments of Shoemaker-Levy 9 on approach to Jupiter (NASA/HST)
Fragments of Shoemaker-Levy 9 on approach to Jupiter (NASA/HST)

While the massive Comet Shoemaker–Levy 9 (15 km in diameter) that crashed into Jupiter in 1994 was spectacular as seen from Earth orbit by the Hubble Space Telescope, an event like C/2013 A1 slamming into Mars would be off the charts.

Astronomers are certainly keeping an eye on this comet, and they will refine their measurements as more data comes in. You can see the orbital parameters available so far at JPL’s Solar System Dynamics website.

We’ll keep you posted.

Sources: Astroblog, IceInSpace, SpaceObs, Discovery Space