MAVEN Mars Orbiter Ideally Poised to Uniquely Map Comet Siding Spring Composition – Exclusive Interview with Principal Investigator Bruce Jakosky

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
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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.”

Comet: Siding Spring. The images above show -- before and after filtering -- comet C/2013 A1, also known as Siding Spring, as captured by Wide Field Camera 3 on NASA's Hubble Space Telescope.  Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and J.-Y. Li (Planetary Science Institute)
Comet: Siding Spring
The images above show — before and after filtering — comet C/2013 A1, also known as Siding Spring, as captured by Wide Field Camera 3 on NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and J.-Y. Li (Planetary Science Institute)

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.”

This graphic depicts the orbit of comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring as it swings around the sun in 2014. On Oct. 19, 2014 the comet will have a very close pass at Mars. Its nucleus will miss Mars by about 82,000 miles (132,000 kilometers).   Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This graphic depicts the orbit of comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring as it swings around the sun in 2014. On Oct. 19, 2014 the comet will have a very close pass at Mars. Its nucleus will miss Mars by about 82,000 miles (132,000 kilometers). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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.”

Maven spacecraft trajectory to Mars. Credit: NASA
Maven spacecraft trajectory to Mars on Sept. 4, 2014. Credit: NASA

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’s MOM 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.

MAVEN is NASA’s next Mars orbiter and launched on Nov. 18, 2014 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. It will study the evolution of the Red Planet’s atmosphere and climate. Universe Today visited MAVEN inside the clean room at the Kennedy Space Center. With solar panels unfurled, this is exactly how MAVEN looks when flying through space and circling Mars and observing Comet Siding Spring. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
MAVEN is NASA’s next Mars orbiter and launched on Nov. 18, 2014 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. It will study the evolution of the Red Planet’s atmosphere and climate. Universe Today visited MAVEN inside the clean room at the Kennedy Space Center. With solar panels unfurled, this is exactly how MAVEN looks when flying through space and circling Mars and observing Comet Siding Spring. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing MAVEN, MOM, Rosetta, Opportunity, Curiosity, Mars rover and more Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

NASA’s Mars bound MAVEN spacecraft launches atop Atlas V booster at 1:28 p.m. EST from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Nov. 18, 2013. Image taken from the roof of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA’s Mars bound MAVEN spacecraft launches atop Atlas V booster at 1:28 p.m. EST from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Nov. 18, 2013. Image taken from the roof of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA’s MAVEN Mars orbiter, chief scientist Prof. Bruce Jakosky of CU-Boulder and Ken Kremer of Universe Today inside the clean room at the Kennedy Space Center on Sept. 27, 2013. MAVEN launches to Mars on Nov. 18, 2013 from Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA’s MAVEN Mars orbiter, chief scientist Prof. Bruce Jakosky of CU-Boulder and Ken Kremer of Universe Today inside the clean room at the Kennedy Space Center on Sept. 27, 2013. MAVEN launched to Mars on Nov. 18, 2013 from Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Comet Jacques Brightens: How to See it in May

A recently discovered comet is headed northward and is set to put on one of two fine performances for binocular observers in 2014 starting this week.

Comet C/2014 E2 Jacques was discovered on March 13th 2014 by Cristóvão Jacques, Eduardo Pimentel and João Ribeiro de Barros while observing from the Southern Observatory for Near Earth Asteroids Research (SONEAR) facility located near Oliveira, Brazil.

The comet was just about at +15th magnitude at the time of discovery as it glided across the southern hemisphere constellation of Centaurus.

While a majority of comet discoveries are destined to remain small and faint, Comet Jacques was immediately shown to be something special. Upon discovery of any new comet, the first task is to gain several observations hours or nights apart to accurately gauge its distance and orbit. Are astronomers looking at a small, garden variety comet close up, or a large, active one far away?

In the case of Comet Jacques, it was something in between: a comet about 1.22 Astronomical Units (A.U.s) distant at time of discovery. Comet Jacques is headed towards perihelion 0.66 A.U. from the Sun in early July and will pass 0.56 A.U. from Earth on August 28th.  Follow up observations carried out using the iTelescope at Siding Spring Australia showed a slightly elongated coma about 2 arc minutes across shortly after discovery, and the comet has recently jumped up to magnitude +8 — ahead of the projected light curve — in just the past week.

Starry Night
The path of Comet Jacques, looking west from latitude 30 degree north 45 minutes after sunset. Credit: Starry Night.

We caught our first good look at Comet Jacques last night while setting up for the Virtual Star Party. While +10 magnitude or brighter is usually a pretty good rule of thumb for binocular visibility, we found that the comet was only apparent as a fuzzy smudge viewing it with a 8” Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope using averted vision at low power. Remember, the brightness of a comet is spread out over its apparent surface area, similar to viewing a diffuse nebula. Our first telescopic views of the ill-fated comet ISON as it breeched +10th magnitude were similar. Certainly, a nearby waxing crescent Moon in Gemini last night didn’t help.

How bright will Comet Jacques get? Current projections call for it to perhaps break naked eye visibility around +6th magnitude after June 1st and reach as bright as +4th magnitude in early July near perihelion. After its first evening act in May and June, Comet Jacques will reemerge in the dawn sky for northern hemisphere observers for Act 2 and trace a path northward paralleling the galactic plane through the star rich fields of Perseus, Cassiopeia, Cepheus and Cygnus in August and September of this year. If our luck holds out, Comet Jacques will remain above 6th magnitude until early September.

Credit JPL
The path of Comet Jacques through the inner solar system. Credit: JPL solar system small body generator.

This comet also created a brief flurry of interest when it was revealed that it will pass just 0.085 AUs or 12,700,000 kilometers from Venus on July 13th, 2014. Though close, this is still 31 times the distance from Earth to the Moon. The only “eyes” that humanity has currently in operation around Venus is ESA’s Venus Express orbiter. During closest approach Comet Jacques will appear just over 3 degrees away from Venus as seen from our Earthly vantage point.

Another comet is also set to photobomb a planet, as Comet A1 Siding Spring passes a nominal distance of 0.0009 A.U.s or 135,000 kilometers from Mars this Fall on October 19th.

Comet Jacques
11 images of Comet Jacques stacked from May 3rd. Credit: Ian Griffin @IanGriffin.

The closest recorded passage of a comet near Earth was Comet  D/1770 L1 Lexell in 1770, which passed us 0.015 A.U.s or 233 million kilometres distant.

Now on to Act 1. May finds Comet Jacques spending most of the month in the long rambling constellation of Monoceros. Currently moving just under 2 degrees a day, Comet Jacques crosses the celestial equator northward this week on May 8th. You’ll note its high orbital inclination of 156.4 degrees as it speeds northward. Comet Jacques has a long orbital period gauged at over 30,000 years — the last time Comet Jacques visited the inner solar system, our ancestors had the Last Glacial Maximum period to look forward to.

Light curve
The projected light curve of comet Jacques with recent observations. Credit: Seiichi Yoshida/aerith.net.

Comet Jacques is currently the brightest comet “with a bullet,” edging out the +9th magnitude comets C/2012 K1 PanSTARRS gilding through Canes Venatici and comet C/2012 X1 LINEAR, currently residing in the constellation of Aquila the Eagle. A great place to keep up with current observations of comets is the Comet Observation Database. We’re also pinging the IAU Minor Planet Center’s quick look page for new discoveries daily.

Here are some highlights to watch out for as Comet Jacques heads towards perihelion. Passages within one degree — twice the size of the Full Moon — near stars brighter than +5th magnitude are noted unless mentioned otherwise:

May 3rd through June 1st
The celestial path of Comet Jacques from May 3rd through June 1st. Credit: Starry Night.

May 8th: Passes the +4.1 magnitude star Delta Monocerotis and crosses north of the celestial equator.

May 10th: Passes planetary nebula NGC 2346.

May 11th: Passes briefly into Canis Minor before reentering the constellation Monoceros.

May 14th: Full Moon occurs, marking the start of a favorable two week period of moonless evenings soon after.

May 24th: Passes the +4.8 magnitude star 17 Monocerotis.

May 28th: New Moon occurs, marking the return of the Moon to early evening skies.

May 29th: Passes the +4.7 magnitude star 15 Monocerotis.

May 30th: Passes the Christmas tree cluster. Photo op!

May 31st: The waxing crescent Moon passes less than 8 degrees from Comet Jacques.

June 1st: Comet Jacques reaches naked eye visibility?

June 6th: Crosses into the constellation Gemini.

June 11th: Crosses into the constellation Taurus.

June 13th: Full Moon occurs.

June 14th: Crosses the galactic plane.

June 21st: Passes into the field of view of SOHO’s LASCO C3 camera.

June 27th: New Moon occurs.

July 2nd: Reaches perihelion at 0.6638 A.U. from the Sun.

July 8th: Crosses north of the ecliptic plane.

July 13th: Passes 0.085 A.U. from Venus.

August 28th: Passes 0.56 A.U. from Earth.

And thus, Comet Jacques joins the parade of fine binocular comets in the 2014 night sky, as the stage is set for Act 2 this fall. And keep in mind, the next “big one” could grace our skies at anytime… more to come!

Mars-Bound Comet Siding Spring Sprouts Multiple Jets

Comet Siding Spring, on its way to a close brush with Mars on October 19, has been kicking up a storm lately. New images from Hubble Space Telescope taken on March 11, when the comet was just this side of Jupiter, reveal multiple jets of gas and dust. 

Illustration showing Comet Siding Spring's orbit and close pass of Mars as it swings around the sun this year. Credit: NASA
Illustration showing Comet Siding Spring’s orbit and close pass of Mars as it plies its way through the inner solar system this year. Credit: NASA

Discovered in January 2013 by Robert H. McNaught at Siding Spring Observatory in Australia, the comet is falling toward the sun along a roughly 1 million year orbit. It will gradually brighten through spring and summer until reaching binocular brightness this fall when it passes 130 million miles (209 million km) from Earth.

Views of the comet on three different dates. Top shows a series of unfiltered images while the bottom are filtered to better show the jets. Credit:
Views of the comet on three different dates. Top shows a series of unfiltered images while the bottom are filtered to better show the jets. Comet Siding Spring’s hazy coma measures about 12,000 miles across and it’s presently about 353 million miles (568 million km) from the sun. Credit: NASA, ESA, J.-Y. Li (Planetary Science Institute)

Astronomers were particularly interested in getting images when Earth crossed the comet’s orbital plane, the path the comet takes as it orbits the sun. The positioning of the two bodies allowed Hubble to make crucial observations of how fast dust particles streamed off the nucleus.

Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring photographed from Australia on March 4, 2014. Credit: Rolando Ligustri
Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring photographed from Australia on March 4, 2014. Credit: Rolando Ligustri

“This is critical information that we need to determine whether, and to what degree, dust grains in the coma of the comet will impact Mars and spacecraft in the vicinity of Mars,” said Jian-Yang Li of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona.

On October 19 this year, Comet Siding Spring will pass within 84,000 miles (135,000 km) of Mars or less than half the distance of our moon. There’s a distinct possibility that orbiting Mars probes like NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the European Mars Express might be enveloped by the comet’s coma (hazy atmosphere) and pelted by dust.

Mars and Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring will overlap as seen from Earth on Oct. 19, 2014 when the comet might pass as close as 25,700 miles (41,300 km) from the planet’s center. View shows the sky at the end of evening twilight facing southwest. Stellarium
Mars and Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring will overlap as seen from Earth on Oct. 19, 2014 when the comet might pass as close as 25,700 miles (41,300 km) from the planet’s center. View shows the sky at the end of evening twilight facing southwest. Stellarium

While comet dust particles are only 1 to 1/10,000 of a centimeter wide, they’ll be moving at 124,000 mph (200,000 km/hr). At that speed even dust motes small can be destructive. Plans are being considered to alter the orbits of the spacecraft to evade the worst of the potential blast. On the bright side, the Red Planet may witness a spectacular meteor storm! Protected by the atmosphere, the Martian rovers aren’t expected to be affected.

I know where I’ll be on October 19 – in the front yard peering at Mars through my telescope. Even if the comet doesn’t affect the planet, seeing the two overlap in conjunction will be a sight not to miss.