A Compendium of Universe Today Comet Siding Spring Articles: January 2013 – October 2014

Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring passed between the Small Magellanic Cloud (left) and the rich globular cluster NGC 130 on August 29, 2014. Credit: Rolando Ligustri

We present here a compendium of Universe Today articles on comet Siding Spring. Altogether 18 Universe Today stories and counting have represented our on-going coverage of a once in a lifetime event. The articles beginning in February 2013, just days after its discovery, lead to the comet’s penultimate event – the flyby of Mars, October 19, 2014. While comet Siding Spring will reach perihelion just 6 days later, October 25, 2014, it will hardly have sensed the true power and impact that our Sun can have on a comet.

Siding Spring’s Oort Cloud cousin, Comet ISON in November 2013 encountered the Sun at a mere 1.86 million km. The intensity of the Sun’s glare was 12,600 times greater than what Siding Spring will experience in a few days. Comet ISON did not survive its passage around the Sun but Comet Siding Spring will soon turn back and begin a very long journey to its place of origin, the Oort Cloud far beyond Pluto.

An animation of comet Siding Springs passage through the inner Solar System. The scale size of its place of origin would dwarf the orbits of the Solar System to little more than a small dot. (Illustration Credit: Near-Earth Object (NEO) office, NASA/JPL)
An animation of comet Siding Springs passage through the inner Solar System. The scale size of its place of origin would dwarf the orbits of the Solar System to little more than a small dot. (Illustration Credit: Near-Earth Object (NEO) office, NASA/JPL)

The closest approach for comet Siding Spring with the Sun – perihelion is at a distance of 1.39875 Astronomical Units (1 AU being the distance between the Earth and Sun), still 209 million km (130 million miles). The exact period of the comet is not exactly known but it is measured in millions of years. In my childhood astronomy book, it stated that comet Halley, when it is at its furthest distance from the Sun, is moving no faster than a galloping horse. This has also been all that comet Siding Spring could muster for millions of years – the slightest of movement in the direction of the Sun.

It is only in the last 3 years, out all the millions spent on its journey, that it has felt the heat of the Sun and been in proximity to the  planetary bodies of our Solar System. This is story of all long period comets. A video camera on Siding Spring would have recorded the emergence and evolution of one primate out of several, one that left the trees to stand on two legs, whose brain grew in size and complexity and has achieved all the technological wonders (and horrors) we know of today.

Now with its close encounter with Mars, the planet’s gravity will bend the trajectory of the comet and reduce its orbital period to approximately one million years. No one will be waiting up late for its next return to the inner Solar System.

It is also unknown what force in the depths of the Oort cloud nudged the comet into its encounter with Mars and the Sun. Like the millions of other Oort cloud objects, Siding Spring has spent its existence – 4.5 Billion years, in the darkness of deep space, with its parent star, the Sun, nothing more than a point of light, the brightest star in its sky. The gravitational force that nudged it may have been a passing star, another cometary body or possibly a larger trans-Neptunian object the size of Pluto and even as large as Mars or the Earth.

The forces of nature on Earth cause a constant turning over geological features. Our oceans and atmosphere are constantly recycling water and gases. The comets that we receive from the Oort Cloud are objects as old as our Solar System. Yet it is the close encounter with Mars that has raised the specter of an otherwise small ordinary comet. All these comets from deep space are fascinating gems nearly unaltered for 1/3rd of the time span of the known Universe.

Universe Today’s Siding Spring Compendium

2014/10/17: Here’s A Look At Comet Siding Spring Two Days Before Its Encounter With Mars

2014/10/17: Weekly Space Hangout Oct 17 2014

2014/10/15: Comet A1 Siding Spring vs Mars Views In Space And Time

2014/10/10: How To See Comet Siding Spring As It Encounters Mars

2014/10/08: Comet Siding Spring Close Call For Mars Wake Up Call For Earth

2014/09/19: How NASA’s Next Mars Spacecraft Will Greet The Red Planet On Sunday

2014/09/09: Tales Tails Of Three Comets

2014/09/05: Maven Mars Orbiter Ideally Poised To Uniquely Map Comet Siding Spring Composition Exclusive Interview With Principal Investigator Bruce Jakosky

2014/08/30: Caterpillar Comet Poses For Pictures En Route To Mars

2014/07/26: NASA Preps For Nail Biting Comet Flyby Of Mars

2014/05/08: Interesting Prospects For Comet A1 Siding Spring Versus The Martian Atmosphere

2014/03/27: Mars Bound Comet Siding Spring Sprouts Multiple Jets

2014/01/29: Neowise Spots Mars Crossing Comet

2014/01/02: Comets Prospects For 2014 A Look Into The Crystal Ball

2013/04/12: New Calculations Effectively Rule Out Comet Impacting Mars In 2014

2013/03/28: NASA Scientists Discuss Potential Comet Impact On Mars

2013/03/05: Update On The Comet That Might Hit Mars

2013/02/26: Is A Comet On A Collision Course With Mars

Amateur Images Show Juno’s ‘Slingshot’ Around Earth Was a Success

The path of the Juno spacecraft imaged as it flies past Earth on October 9, 2013, using the iTelescope Observatory in Nerpio, Spain. Credit and copyright: Ernesto Guido, Nick Howes and Martino Nicolini/Remanzacco Observatory.

With the government shutdown, news out of NASA is sometimes sparse. But thankfully amateur astronomers can fill in some of the holes! While Juno’s project manager Rick Nybakken has confirmed that the spacecraft successfully completed its slingshot flyby of Earth yesterday, images taken by amateur astronomers around the world also conclusively confirm that Juno is now “bang on target!” tweeted Nick Howes of the Remanzacco Observatory team. This image from Howes, Ernesto Guido and Martino Nicolini shows the path of Juno across the sky, as seen from a remote telescope in Spain. “The spacecraft is trailed in the image due to its fast speed,” the team wrote on their website, and extrapolations of Juno’s orbit shows it is heading straight for Jupiter.

You can see a gallery of images of Juno’s flyby taken by amateurs on this SpaceWeather.com page.

Meanwhile, there are some concerns about the spacecraft going into safe mode immediately after the flyby. Our previous article by Ken Kremer reported that the mission teams are assessing the situation, and that the spacecraft is “power positive.”

One idea of why the spacecraft went into safe mode is that the battery was being depleted faster than anticipated, but the team is still working to confirm the reason.

Closest approach was at 12:21 PM PST (19:21 UTC, 3:21 PM EDT).

For more information about the flyby, check out this new video from Bill Nye the Science Guy — who has a new video series called “Why With Nye.”

Juno's flyby path, via Heaven's Above.
Juno’s flyby path, via Heaven’s Above.

Could Juno’s Path Near Earth Uncover A Flyby Mystery?

Artist's conception of Juno coming near Earth on a planned flyby Oct. 9, 2013. Credit: NASA

Every so often, engineers send a spacecraft in Earth’s general direction to pick up a speed boost before heading elsewhere. But sometimes, something strange happens — the spacecraft’s speed varies in an unexpected way. Even stranger, this variation happens only during some Earth flybys.

“We detected the flyby anomaly during Rosetta’s first Earth visit in March 2005,” stated Trevor Morley, a flight dynamics specialist at the European Space Agency’s European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany.

“Frustratingly, no anomaly was seen during Rosetta’s subsequent Earth flybys in 2007 and 2011. This is a real cosmic mystery that no one has yet figured out.”

The phenomenon has been noticed in several spacecraft (both from ESA and NASA) since 1990. NASA’s NEAR asteroid spacecraft in January 1998 had the largest change, of 13 millimeters (0.5 inches) a second. The smallest variations, with NASA’s Saturn-bound Cassini in 1999 and Mercury-pointing MESSENGER in 2005, were below the threshold of measurement.

ESA won’t even speculate on what’s going on. “The experts are stumped,” the agency says in a press release.

Those experts, however, do have some ideas on how to track that down. ESOC plans to watch Juno’s flyby using a 35 meter deep-space dish in Malargüe, Argentina, as well as a 15-meter dish in Perth, Australia

“The stations will record highly precise radio-signal information that will indicate whether Juno speeds up or slows down more or less than predicted by current theories,” ESA states.

What do you think is going on? Let us know in the comments!

Source: European Space Agency

A Parting Look at 2012 DA14: Was This a Warning Shot from Space?

Asteroid DA14 seen from the 2.1 Kitt Peak telescope as it departed the vicinity of Earth. Credit: NOAO/Nicholas Moskovitz (MIT)

Just as anticipated, on Friday, Feb. 15, asteroid 2012 DA14 passed us by, zipping 27,000 kilometers (17,000 miles) above Earth’s surface — well within the ring of geostationary weather and communications satellites that ring our world. Traveling a breakneck 28,100 km/hr (that’s nearly five miles a second!) the 50-meter space rock was a fast-moving target for professional and amateur observers alike. And even as it was heading away from Earth DA14 was captured on camera by a team led by MIT researcher Dr. Nicholas Moskovitz using the 2.1-meter telescope at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Tucson, AZ. The team’s images are shown above as an animated gif (you may need to click the image to play it.)

This object’s close pass, coupled with the completely unexpected appearance of a remarkably large meteor in the skies over Chelyabinsk, Russia on the morning of the same day, highlight the need for continued research of near-Earth objects (NEOs) — since there are plenty more out there where these came from.

“Flybys like this, particularly for objects smaller than 2012 DA14, are not uncommon. This one was special because we knew about it well in advance so that observations could be planned to look at how asteroids are effected by the Earth’s gravity when they come so close.”

– Dr. Nicholas Moskovitz, MIT

The animation shows 2012 DA14 passing inside the Little Dipper, crossing an area about a third the size of the full Moon in 45 minutes. North is to the left.

(For a high-resolution version of the animation, click here.)

Exterior of the 2.1-meter telescope of the Kitt Peak National Observatory (NOAO)
Exterior of the 2.1-meter telescope of the Kitt Peak National Observatory (NOAO/AURA/NSF)

According to the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, which operates the Kitt Peak Observatory, Dr. Moskovitz’ NSF-supported team “are analyzing their data to measure any changes in the rotation rate of the asteroid after its close encounter with the Earth. Although asteroids are generally too small to resolve with optical telescopes, their irregular shape causes their brightness to change as they rotate. Measuring the rotation rate of the asteroid in this way allows the team to test models that predict how the earth’s gravity can affect close-passing asteroids. This will lead to a better understanding of whether objects like 2012 DA14 are rubble piles or single solid rocks.

“This is critical to understanding the potential hazards that other asteroids could pose if they collide with the Earth.”

So just how close was DA14’s “close pass?” Well, if Earth were just a few minutes farther along in its orbit, we would likely be looking at images of its impact rather than its departure.*

Although this particular asteroid isn’t expected to approach Earth so closely at any time in the foreseeable future — at least within the next 130 years — there are lots of such Earth-crossing objects within the inner Solar System… some we’re aware of, but many that we’re not. Identifying them and knowing as many details as possible about their orbits, shapes, and compositions is key.

Even this soon after the Feb. 15 flyby observations of 2012 DA14 have provided more information on its orbit and characteristics., allowing for fine-tuning of the data on it.

According to the Goldstone Radar Observatory web page, the details on 2012 DA14 are as follows:
Semimajor axis                   1.002 AU
Eccentricity                          0.108
Inclination                           10.4 deg
Perihelion distance           0.893 AU
Aphelion distance              1.110 AU
Absolute magnitude (H)   24.4
Diameter                               ~50 meters (+- a factor of two)
Rotation period                   ~6 h  (N. Moskovitz, pers. comm.)
Pole direction                      unknown
Lightcurve amplitude        ~1 mag  (N. Moskovitz, pers. comm.)
Spectral class                       Ld  (N. Moskovitz, pers. comm.)

Goldstone is currently conducting radar observations on the asteroid. A radar map of its surface and motion is anticipated in the near future.

Read more about Dr. Moskovitz’ observations on the NOAO website here, and see more images of 2012 DA14 captured by astronomers around the world in our previous article.

A bright meteor witnessed over Russia on Feb. 15, 2013 (RussiaToday)
A bright daytime meteor witnessed over Russia on Feb. 15, 2013 (RussiaToday)

Also, in an encouraging move by international leaders in the field, during the fiftieth session of the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, currently being held from at the United Nation Office in Vienna, near-Earth objects are on the agenda with a final report to be issued by an Action Team. Read the report PDF here.

*According to astronomer Phil Plait, while the orbits of Earth and DA14 might intersect at some point, on the 15th of February 2013 the asteroid slipped just outside of Earth’s orbit — a little over 17,000 miles shy. “It was traveling one way and the Earth another, so they could not have hit each other on this pass no matter where Earth was in its orbit,” he wrote in an email. Still, 17,000 miles is a very close call astronomically, and according to Neil deGrasse Tyson on Twitter, it “will one day hit us, like the one in Russian [sic] last night.” When? We don’t know yet. That’s why we must keep watching.

In Two Weeks This 50-Meter Asteroid Will Buzz Our Planet

 Asteroid 2012-DA14 will pass Earth closely on Feb. 15, 2013 (NASA)

On February 15 a chunk of rock about 50 meters wide will whiz by Earth at nearly 8 km/s, coming within 27,680 km of our planet’s surface — closer than many weather and communications satellites.

For those of you more comfortable with imperial units, that’s 165 feet wide traveling 17,800 mph coming within 17,200 miles. But regardless whether you prefer meters or miles, in astronomy that’s what’s called a close call.

Scientists stress that there’s no danger of an impact by this incoming asteroid, designated 2012-DA14, but it’s yet another reminder that in our neck of the Solar System we are definitely not alone.

“2012-DA14 will definitely not hit Earth,” says JPL’s near-Earth object specialist Don Yeomans. “The orbit of the asteroid is known well enough to rule out an impact.”

But with 2012-DA14’s upcoming February flyby Yeomans notes, “this is a record-setting close approach.”

The rocky asteroid will come within about 4 Earth radii, which is well within the orbits of geosynchronous satellites. During its closest approach at 19:26 UTC it should be visible in the sky to amateur telescopes (but not the naked eye), becoming as bright as an 7th- or 8th-magnitude star.


Radar observatories will be watching 2012-DA14 during the days leading up to and following its approach in an attempt to better determine its size, shape and trajectory. NASA’s Goldstone facility will have an eye — er, dish — on DA14, but it won’t be visible to Arecibo. Stay tuned for more info!

Read more about 2012-DA14 on the JPL Near-Earth Object Program page here.

Titan Shines in Latest Cassini Shots

Color-composite raw image of Titan’s southern hemisphere. Note the growing south polar vortex. (NASA/JPL/SSI/Jason Major)

Last Thursday, November 29, Cassini sailed past Titan for yet another close encounter, coming within 1,014 kilometers (603 miles) of the cloud-covered moon in order to investigate its thick, complex atmosphere. Cassini’s Visible and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS), Composite Infrared Spectrometer (CIRS) and Imaging Science Subsystems (ISS) instruments were all busy acquiring data on Titan’s atmosphere and surface… here are a couple of color-composites made from raw images captured in visible light channels as well as some of the more interesting monochrome raw images. Enjoy!

The structure of Titan’s upper-level hazes, which extend ten times the height of Earth’s atmosphere. (NASA/JPL/SSI)

Cassini captured this view of Titan’s crescent during its approach, from a distance of 193,460 kilometers (NASA/JPL/SSI/Jason Major)

Cassini’s continuum filter (CB3) allows it to image Titan’s surface. The dark areas are vast fields of hydrocarbon sand dunes (NASA/JPL/SSI)

These images have not been validated or calibrated by NASA or the mission team.

Read more about the T-88 flyby here.

On the Edge of Titan

Titan's haze-covered limb seen by Cassini on June 6


Here’s a quick look at one of my favorite cosmic photo subjects – the varying layers of atmosphere that enshroud Saturn’s enormous moon Titan. The image above is a color-composite made from three raw images acquired by Cassini during its latest flyby.

On June 7 Cassini approached Titan within 596 miles (959 km) and imaged portions of the moon’s northwest quadrant with its radar instrument, as well as conducted further investigations of areas near the equator where surface changes were detected in 2010.

The image here was assembled from three raw images captured in red, green and blue visible light channels. It reveals some structure in the upper hydrocarbon haze layers that extend upwards above the moon’s opaque orange clouds — reaching 400-500 km in altitude, Titan’s atmosphere is ten times thicker than Earth’s!

The June 6 flyby was the second in a series of passes that will take Cassini into a more inclined orbit, where it will reside for the next three years as it investigates Saturn’s polar regions and obtains better views of its ring system.

Read more about the flyby here.

Image: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute. Composite by J. Major.

Cassini Captures a Rarely-Seen Moon

Closest view of Saturn's moon Methone ever captured by Cassini


While many of us here on Earth were waiting for the Moon to take a bite out of the Sun this past Sunday, Cassini was doing some moon watching of its own, 828.5 million miles away!

The image above is a color-composite raw image of Methone (pronounced meh-tho-nee), a tiny, egg-shaped moon only 2 miles (3 km) across. Discovered by Cassini in 2004, Methone’s orbit lies between Mimas and Enceladus, at a distance of 120,546 miles (194,000 km) from Saturn — that’s about half the distance between Earth and the Moon.

At an altitude of 1,200 miles (1900 km) this was Cassini’s closest pass ever of Methone, a rare visit that occurred after the spacecraft departed the much larger Tethys.

Along with sister moons Pallene and Anthe, Methone is part of a group called the Alkyonides, named after daughters of the god Alkyoneus in Greek mythology. The three moons may be leftovers from a larger swarm of bodies that entered into orbit around Saturn — or they may be pieces that broke off from either Mimas or Enceladus.

Earlier on Sunday, May 20, Cassini paid a relatively close visit to Tethys (pronounced tee-this), a 662-mile (1065-km) -wide moon made almost entirely of ice. One of the most extensively cratered worlds in the Solar System, Tethys’ surface is dominated by craters of all sizes — from the tiniest to the giant 250-mile (400-km) -wide Odysseus crater — as well as gouged by the enormous Ithaca Chasma, a series of deep valleys running nearly form pole to pole.

Saturn's icy moon Tethys with Ithaca Chasma visible, seen by Cassini on May 20, 2012.
Tethys' rugged and heavily-cratered surface near the terminator
Cassini looks down into the 62 mile (100 km) wide Ithaca Chasma

Cassini passed within 34,000 miles (54,000 km) of Tethys on May 20, before heading to Methone and then moving on to its new path toward Titan, a trajectory that will eventually take it up out of Saturn’s equatorial plane into a more inclined orbit in order to better image details of the rings and  Saturn’s poles.

Read more about this flyby on the Cassini mission site here. and see more raw images straight from the spacecraft on the CICLOPS imaging lab site here.

Image credit: NASA / JPL / Space Science Institute. (Color-composite image edited by J. Major.)

Exploration at its Finest: Cassini Visits Dione


After completing its most recent flyby of Enceladus, Cassini made a pass by Dione — its final visit of the icy moon for the next three years. Coming within  5,000 miles (8000 km) of Dione on May 2, Cassini captured some fantastic images of the moon’s heavily-cratered and frozen surface. Here’s just a few of the raw images that arrived back here on Earth earlier today:

Crescent-lit Dione, with some reflected light via Saturnshine
A nearly fully-lit Dione, with Saturn's rings in the background
Dione's extensively-cratered limb
Some of Dione's signature "wispy lines", bright icy faces of sheer cliffs now known to be tectonic in origin
A color-composite image of an ancient impact crater on the edge of Dione's Saturn-facing side - this could be from the impact that spun the moon 180 degrees. (NASA/JPL/SSI/J. Major)

698 miles (1123 km) in diameter, Dione orbits Saturn at about the same distance that the Moon orbits Earth. Its composition is two-thirds water ice, which at the incredibly cold temperatures found around Saturn behaves like rock does here on Earth.


Cassini won’t visit Dione so closely again until June 2015, after spending three years angled high out of the equatorial plane while it studies Saturn’s rings and polar regions.

As Carolyn Porco, Cassini Imaging Team Leader said today, “This is exploration at its finest. It won’t continue forever. So, enjoy it while it lasts!”

See more on the Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory for Operations (CICLOPS) site here.

Image credits: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute 


Enceladus On Display In Newest Images From Cassini

Enceladus' southern ice geysers are brilliant in backlit sunlight (NASA/JPL/SSI/J. Major)


The latest images are in from Saturn’s very own personal paparazzi, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, fresh from its early morning flyby of the ice-spewing moon Enceladus. And, being its last closeup for the next three years, the little moon didn’t disappoint!

The image above is a composite I made from two raw images (this one and this one) assembled to show Enceladus in its crescent-lit entirety with jets in full force. The images were rotated to orient the moon’s southern pole — where the jets originate — toward the bottom.

Cassini was between 72,090 miles (116,000 km) and 90,000 miles (140,000 km) from Enceladus when these images were acquired.

This morning’s E-19 flyby completed a trio of recent close passes by Cassini of the 318-mile (511-km) -wide moon, bringing the spacecraft as low as 46 miles (74 km) above its frozen surface. The goal of the maneuver was to gather data about Enceladus’ internal mass — particularly in the region around its southern pole, where a reservoir of liquid water is thought to reside — and also to look for “hot spots” on its surface that would give more information about its overall energy distribution.

Cassini had previously discovered that Enceladus radiates a surprising amount of heat from its surface, mostly along the “tiger stripe” features — long, deep furrows (sulcae) that gouge its southern hemisphere, they are the source of the water-ice geysers.

Cassini also used the flyby opportunity to study Enceladus’ gravitational field.

By imaging the moon with backlit lighting from the Sun the highly-reflective ice particles in the jets become visible. More direct lighting reduces the jets’ visibility in images, which must be exposed for the natural light of the scene or risk “blowing out” due to Enceladus’ natural high reflectivity.

The images below are raw spacecraft downloads right from the Cassini’s imaging headquarters in Boulder, CO.

Enceladus' geysers in action on May 2, 2012. (NASA/JPL/SSI)
Enceladus sprays ice into the hazy E ring, which orbits Saturn (NASA/JPL/SSI)

Cassini also swung closely by Dione during this morning’s flyby but the images from that encounter aren’t available yet. Stay tuned to Universe Today for more postcards from Saturn!

As always, you can follow along with the ongoing Cassini mission on JPL’s dedicated site here, as well as on the Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory for Operations (CICLOPS) site.