Comet A1 Siding Spring vs Mars: Views in Space and Time

Oh, to be a stranded astronaut on the surface of the planet Mars this week.  There’s a great scene from Andy Weir’s recent novel The Martian where chief protagonist Mark Watney uses the swift moving moons of Phobos and Deimos to roughly gauge his direction while travelling across the expansive Martian desert.

This week, the skies over Mars will also be graced by an unforgettable and spectacular sight: the extremely close passage of Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring. The first comet discovered in 2013, A1 Siding Spring was spotted by veteran comet hunter Robert McNaught from the Siding Spring Observatory in Australia. Dozens of comets are discovered in any given year, but this one soon gained the attention of astronomers when it was found that the comet could possibly hit Mars in October 2014.

And although further observations refined A1 Siding Spring’s orbit and ruled out such an impact, the particulars of the close passage of the comet past Mars are still stunning: A1 Siding Spring will pass within 87,000 miles (139,500 kilometres) from the center of Mars on Sunday, October 19th at 18:27 Universal Time (UT) or 2:27 PM EDT.

And although we’ve yet to set “boots” on Mars, a fleet of spacecraft arrayed throughout the inner solar system are set to study the comet from both near and far. NASA has taken measures to assure that spacecraft in orbit are afforded maximum protection from incoming cometary debris, and the exciting possibility exists that we’ll be able to study first-hand the interaction of the comet’s tail with the Martian atmosphere.

Credit NASA
Mars-based spacecraft set to observe Comet A1 Siding Spring: a scorecard. Credit: NASA.

Universe Today has written extensively on the scientific efforts to study the event, how to observe the comet from Earth, and the unprecedented amateur and professional campaign in progress to witness the close pass.

What we’d like to do now is imagine the unparalleled view under alien skies as the comet slides gracefully overhead.

The nucleus of A1 Siding Spring is thought to be 700 metres across, and the coma extends 19,300 km in diameter. The comet’s closest passage is just under six times the distance of Mars’ outer moon Deimos, and at closest approach, the coma will appear almost 8 degrees in size to any would-be Martian — that’s 16 times the diameter of a Full Moon as seen from the Earth — and will be crossing the skies at a staggering 1.5 degrees a minute. You would be able to easily see the motion of the comet as it moves across the Martian sky with the unaided (well, space suit helmet protected) eye after just a few dozen seconds worth of watching! The comet’s magnitude may reach -5 as seen from Mars, though that would also be extended over its huge expanded surface area.

The enormous tail of the comet would also span the sky, and NASA has already released several mind blowing simulations to this effect.  We’ve also constructed some brief simulations using Starry Night that show the view of the encounter from Earth, Phobos, and the perspective from the comet itself:

There’s also been some discussion as of late that A1 Siding Spring has slowed down in terms of its predicted brightening, though this is not unusual or unexpected.

From Acidalia Planitia (the setting for The Martian) located in the mid-northern latitudes on the surface of Mars, the comet would be a fine morning object, sitting 48 degrees above the northeastern horizon at dawn at closest passage for one morning only, and perhaps staying visible even after sunrise. Earth would be in the picture too, shining at magnitude -2.5 in the Martian dawn.

Dawn on  October 19th, 2014, as seen from Mars. Created using Starry Night.

And the view from the comet?  Now that would be a truly spectacular ride, as Mars swells to 3 degrees in diameter as it approaches and recedes. The comet itself is on a million year plus orbit, never to again visit the realm of the inner solar system in our lifetimes.

Such a view has never been seen in recorded history from the Earth. The closest confirmed passage of a large comet near our planet was Comet D/1770 L1 Lexell, which passed over 15 times more distant than A1 Siding Spring from Mars, at 2.2 million km from Earth on July 1st, 1770. Note that an even closer cometary passage in 1491 remains unverified. In more recent times, Comet Hyakutake passed 15.8 million km from Earth on March 25th, 1996, with a tail that spanned half the sky as seen from a dark sky site, and long-time comet observers might also remember the 1983 passage of Comet IRAS-Araki-Alcock, which passed just 4.7 million kilometres from the Earth.

A1 Siding Spring imaged from Earth on October 11th, 2014. Credit: Efrain Morales Rivera.

And then there was the historic impact on Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 into Jupiter in 1994, reminding us that cosmic catastrophes can and do indeed occur… the upper size limit estimate for the nucleus of A1 Siding Spring compares to 70% the size of Fragment G, and an impact on Earth or Mars of such a dirty snowball would be a very bad day, for rovers or the humans. An extinction level event such as the Chicxulub impactor, however, was estimated to be much larger, at about 10 km in size.

A1 Siding Springs as imaged on September 3rd, 2014. Credit: Roger Hutchinson.

Thankfully, we’ve merely got a front row seat to the show this weekend, and our planet is not the main event. From Earth, Comet A1 Siding Spring will be a binocular object, shining at magnitude +9 as it passes 3’ from +0.9 magnitude Mars. Both will be visible briefly in dusk skies, and the Virtual Telescope Project also plans to broadcast the event live starting at 16:45 UT on October 19th.

Don’t miss the historic passage of Comet A1 Siding Spring past Mars… by this time next week, we fully expect more images of the comet — both amateur and professional — to grace the cyber-pages of Universe Today!

  • Imaging A1 Siding Spring and/or Mars? Send those astro-pics into Universe Today at our Flickr forum.

Interesting Prospects for Comet A1 Siding Spring Versus the Martian Atmosphere

It may be the chance of a lifetime for planetary science.

This October, a comet will brush past a planet, giving scientists a chance to study how it possibly interacts with a planetary atmosphere.

The comet is C/2013 A1 Siding Spring, and the planet in question Mars.  And although an impact of the comet on the surface of the Red Planet has long been ruled out, a paper in the May 2014 issue of Icarus raises the interesting possibility of possible interactions of the coma of A1 Siding Spring and the tenuous atmosphere of Mars. The study comes out of the Department of Planetary Sciences at the University of Arizona, the Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomy, the Institut de Planétologie et d’Astrophysique de Grenoble at the Université J. Fourier in France, and the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

For the study, researchers considered how active Comet A1 Siding Spring may be at the time of closest approach on October 19th, 2014.

Discovered early last year by Robert McNaught from the Siding Spring Observatory in Australia, Comet A1 Siding Spring created a stir in the astronomical community when it was found that it will pass extremely close to Mars later this year. Further measurements of its orbit have since ruled this possibility out, but its passage will still be a close one, with a nominal passage of 138,000 kilometres from Mars. That’s about one third the distance from Earth to the Moon, and 17 times closer than the nearest recorded passage of a comet to the Earth, Comet D/1770 L1 Lexell in 1780. Mars’ outer moon Deimos has an orbital distance of about 23,500 kilometres.

The passage of Comet 2013 A1 Siding Spring through the inner solar system. Credit: NASA.
The passage of Comet 2013 A1 Siding Spring through the inner solar system. Credit: NASA.

And although the nucleus will safely pass Mars, the brush with its extended atmosphere might just be detectable by the fleet of spacecraft and rovers in service around Mars. At a distance of 1.4 Astronomical Units (A.U.) from the Sun during the encounter, the vast coma is expected to be comprised primarily of H2O. At an input angle of about 60 degrees, penetration was calculated in the study to impinge down and altitude of 154 kilometres to the topside of the Martian ionosphere, in the middle of the thermosphere.

Such an effect should linger for just over 4 hours, well over the interaction period of Mars’ atmosphere with the coma of just over an hour, centered on 18:30 UT on October 19th, 2014.

What kind of views might missions like HiRISE and MSL get of the comet remains to be seen, although NEOWISE and Hubble are already monitoring the comet for enhanced activity. The Opportunity rover is also still functioning, and Mars Odyssey and ESA’s Mars Express are still in orbit around the Red Planet and sending back data. But perhaps the most interesting possibilities for observations of the event are still en route: India’s Mars Orbiter Mission and NASA’s MAVEN orbiter arrive just before the comet. MAVEN was designed to study the upper atmosphere of Mars, and carries an ion-neutral mass spectrometer (NGIMS) which could yield information on the interaction of the coma with the Martian upper atmosphere and ionosphere. The NGIMS cover is slated for release just two days before the comet encounter. All spacecraft orbiting Mars may feel the increased drag effects of the encounter.

A simulation of Mars as seen from Comet A1 Siding Spring on closest approach. Created by the author using Starry Night Software.
A simulation of Mars as seen from Comet A1 Siding Spring on closest approach. Created by the author using Starry Night Software.

Proposals for using Earth-based assets for further observations of the comet prior to the event in October are still pending.  Amateur observers will be able to follow the approach telescopically, as Comet A1 Siding Spring is expected to reach +8th magnitude in October and pass 7’ from Mars in the constellation Ophiuchus as seen from the Earth. Mars just passed opposition last month, but both will be low to the south west at dusk for northern hemisphere observers in October.

It’s also interesting to consider the potential for interactions of the coma with the surfaces of the moons of Mars as well, though the net amount of water vapor expected to be deposited will not be large.

UPDATE: Check out this nifty interactive simulator which includes Comet A1 Siding Springs courtesy of the Solar System Scope:

The H2O coma of A1 Siding Spring is expected to have a radius of 150,000 kilometres when it passes Mars, just a shade over the nominal flyby distance.

“There is a more extended coma made up of H2O dissociation products (such as hydrogen and hydroxide) that extends for ~1,000,000 kilometres,” researcher at the Department of Planetary Sciences at the University of Arizona and lead author on the paper Roger Yelle told Universe Today.

“Essentially, Mars is in the outer reaches of the coma. The main ion tail misses Mars but there will be some ions from the comet that do reach Mars. The dust tail just misses Mars, which is fortunate.”

The paper also notes that significant perturbations of the upper atmosphere of Mars will occur if the cometary production rate is 10^28 s-1 or larger, which corresponds to about 300 kilograms per second.

“The MAVEN spacecraft will make very interesting observations,” Roger Yelle also told Universe Today. “The comet will perturb primarily the upper atmosphere of Mars and MAVEN was designed to study the upper atmosphere of Mars. Also, it’s just such an incredible coincidence that the comet arrives at Mars less than one month after MAVEN does. MAVEN is nominally in its checkout phase then, and the main science phase of the mission was not scheduled to start until November 1st. However, we are reassessing our plans to see what observations we can make. It’s all quite exciting, and we have to balance safety and the desire to make the best science measurements.”

It’s an unprecedented opportunity, that’s for sure… all eyes will be on the planet Mars and Comet A1 Siding Spring on October the 19th!


NEOWISE Spots Mars-Crossing Comet

One of the big ticket astronomical events of 2014 will be the close passage of Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring past the planet Mars in October 2014. Discovered just over a year ago from the Australian-based Siding Spring Observatory, this comet generated a surge of excitement in the astronomical community when it was discovered that it was going to pass very close to the planet Mars in late 2014.

Now, a fleet of spacecraft are poised to study the comet in unprecedented detail. Some of the first space-based observations of the comet have been conducted by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and the recently reactivated NEOWISE mission. And although the comet may not look like much yet in the infrared eyes of NEOWISE, its estimated 4 kilometre in diameter nucleus is already active and shedding about 100 kilograms of dust per second.

And although an impact has been since ruled out, it’s that dust that may present a hazard for Mars orbiting spacecraft, as well as a unique scientific observing opportunity.

“Our plans for using spacecraft at Mars to observe Comet A1 Siding Spring will be coordinated with plans for how the orbiters will duck and cover, if we need to do so that,” said NASA/JPL Mars Exploration Program chief scientist Rich Zurek.

The 2014 passage of Comet A1 Siding Spring through the inner solar system. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The 2014 passage of Comet A1 Siding Spring through the inner solar system. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Comet A1 Siding Spring is projected to pass within just 138,000 kilometres of Mars on October 19th, 2014. This is one-third the Earth-Moon distance, and 10 times closer than the closest recorded passage of a comet by the Earth, which was Comet D/1770 Lexell in the late 18th century. The comet will also miss the Martian moons of Phobos and Deimos, which have the closest orbits of any moons in the solar system at just 5,989 and 20,063 kilometres above the surface of Mars, respectively.

Assets in orbit around the Red Planet are also slated to observe the close approach and passage of Comet A1 Siding Spring, as well as any extraterrestrial meteor shower that its dust may generate.

“We could learn about the nucleus – its shape, its rotation, whether some areas on its surface are darker than others,” Zurek said in a recent NASA/JPL press release.

The rovers Curiosity and Opportunity are currently active on the surface of Mars. Above in orbit, we’ve got the European Space Agency’s Mars Express, and NASA’s Mars Odyssey and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).  These will be joined by India’s Mars Orbiter Mission and NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft just weeks prior to the comet’s passage.

“A third aspect for investigation could be what effect the infalling particles have on the upper atmosphere of Mars,” Zurek said. “They might heat it and expand it, not unlike the effect of a global dust storm.”

Just last year, Mars based spacecraft caught sight of the ill-fated sungrazer Comet C/2012 S1 ISON as it passed Mars. But that dim passage yielded a scant pixel-sized view in the eyes of MRO’s HiRISE camera; Comet A1 Siding Spring will pass 80 times closer than Comet ISON and could yield a view of its nucleus dozens of pixels across.

Though the tenuous Martian atmosphere will shield to surface rovers from any micro-meteoroid impacts, they may also be witness to a surreptitious meteor shower from the debris shed by the comet, a first seen from the surface of another world.

But engineers will also be assessing the potential hazards that said particles may posed to spacecraft orbiting Mars as well.

“It’s way too early for us to know how much of a threat Siding Spring will be to our orbiters,” said JPL’s Mars Exploration Program chief engineer Soren Madsen recently. “It could go either way. It could be a huge deal or it could be nothing – or anything in between.”

In a worst case scenario, Mars orbiting spacecraft would be shuttered and oriented to “shelter in place” as the dust from the comet passes. There’s precedent for this in Earth orbit, as precious assets such as the Hubble Space Telescope were closed for business during the Leonid meteor storm of 1998.

“How active will Siding Spring be in April and May? We’ll be watching that,” Madsen continued. “But if the red alarm starts sounding in May, it would be too late to start planning how to respond. That’s why we’re doing what we’re doing right now.”

Comet A1 Siding Spring was the first comet discovered in 2013 at 7.2 Astronomical Units (AUs) distant. From our Earth based perspective, the comet will reach opposition on August 25th at 0.96 AU from the Earth, and approach 7’ from Mars on October 19th in the constellation Ophiuchus in evening skies. The comet reaches perihelion just 4 days later, and is slated to be a binocular comet around that time shining at magnitude +8.

The comet nucleus itself is moving in a retrograde orbit relative to Mars. Particles from A1 Siding Spring will slam into the atmosphere of Mars — and any spacecraft that happens to be in their way — at a velocity of 56 kilometres per second. For context, the recent January Quadrantids have a more sedate atmospheric impact velocity of 41 kilometres a second.

The unfolding 2014 drama of “Mars versus the Comet” will definitely be worth keeping an eye on… more to come!

Haiku for Mars: Winners Selected for MAVEN Mission

Fans of Mars and spaceflight waxed poetic as the haiku selected to travel to Mars aboard the MAVEN spacecraft were announced earlier this month.

The contest received 12,530 valid entries from May 1st through the contest cutoff date of July 1st. Students learned about Mars, planetary exploration and the MAVEN mission as they composed haiku ranging from the personal to the insightful to the hilarious.

“The contest has resonated with people in ways that I never imagined! Both new and accomplished poets wrote poetry to reflect their views of Earth and Mars, their feelings about space exploration, their loss of loved ones who have passed on, and their sense of humor,” said Stephanie Renfrow, MAVEN Education & Public Outreach & Going to Mars campaign lead.

A total of 39,100 votes were cast in the contest; all entries receiving more than 2 votes (1,100 in all) will be carried on a DVD affixed to the MAVEN spacecraft bound for Martian orbit.

Five poems received more than a thousand votes. Among these were such notables as that of one 8th grader from Denver Colorado, who wrote;

                Phobos & Deimos

                          Moons orbiting around Mars

                                       Snared by Gravity

Another notable entry which was among the poems sited for special recognition by the MAVEN team was that of Allison Swets of Michigan;

                 My body can’t walk

                            My mouth can’t make words but I

                                         Soar to Mars today

377 artwork entries were also selected to fly aboard MAVEN as well.

Didn’t get picked? There’s still time to send your name aboard MAVEN along with thousands that have already been submitted. You’ve got until September 10!

Part of NASA’s discontinued Scout-class of missions, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN mission, or MAVEN, is due to launch out of Cape Canaveral on November 18th, 2013. Selected in 2008, MAVEN has a target cost of less than $500 million dollars US, not including launch carrier services atop an Atlas V rocket in a 401 flight configuration.

(Credit: NASA).
An artist’s concept of MAVEN in orbit around Mars (Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center).

The Phoenix Lander was another notable Scout-class mission that was extremely successful, concluding in 2008.

Principal investigator for MAVEN is the University of Boulder at Colorado’s Bruce Jakosky of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP).

The use of poetry to gain public interest in the mission is appropriate, as MAVEN seeks to solve the riddle that is the Martian atmosphere. How did Mars lose its atmosphere over time? What role does the solar wind play in stripping it away? And what is the possible source of that anomalous methane detected by Mars Global Surveyor from 1999 to 2004?

MAVEN is based on the design of the Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft. It will carrying an armada of instruments, including a Neutral Gas & Ion Mass Spectrometer, a Particle and Field Package with several analyzers, and a Remote Sensing Package built by LASP.

MAVEN just arrived at the Kennedy Space Center earlier this month for launch processing and mating to its launch vehicle. Launch will be out of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on November 18th with a 2 hour window starting at 1:47 PM EST/ 18:47 UT.

MAVEN spacecraft at a Lockheed Martin clean room near Denver, Colo. (Credit: Lockheed Martin).
MAVEN spacecraft at a Lockheed Martin clean room near Denver, Colo. (Credit: Lockheed Martin).

Assuming that MAVEN launches at the beginning of its 20 day window, it will reach Mars for an orbital insertion on September 22, 2014. MAVEN will orbit the Red Planet in an elliptical 150 kilometre by 6,200 kilometre orbit, joining the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the European Space Agencies’ Mars Express and the aging Mars Odyssey orbiter, which has been surveying Mars since 2001.

The window for an optimal launch to Mars using a minimal amount of fuel opens every 24 to 26 months. During the last window of opportunity in 2011, the successful Mars Curiosity rover and the ill-fated Russian mission Phobos-Grunt sought to make the trip.

This time around, MAVEN will be joined by India’s Mars Orbiter Mission, launching from the Satish Dhawan Space Center on October 21st. If successful, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) will join Russia, ESA & NASA in nations that have successfully launched missions to Mars.

This window comes approximately six months before Martian opposition, which next occurs on April 8th, 2014. In 2016, ESA’s ExoMars Mars Orbiter and NASA’s InSight Lander will head to Mars. And 2018 may see the joint ESA/NASA ExoMars rover and… if we’re lucky, Dennis Tito’s proposed crewed Mars 2018 flyby.

Interestingly, MAVEN also arrives in Martian orbit just a month before the close 123,000 kilometre passage of comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring, although as of this time, there’s no word if it will carry out any observations of the comet.

These launches will also represent the first planetary missions to depart Earth since 2011. You can follow the mission as @MAVEN2Mars on Twitter. We’ll also be attending the MAVEN Conference and Workshop this weekend in Boulder and tweeting our adventures (wi-fi willing) as @Astroguyz. We also plan on attending the November launch in person as well!

And in the end, it was perhaps for the good of all mankind that our own rule-breaking (but pithy) Mars haiku didn’t get selected:

                        Rider of the Martian Atmosphere

                                  Taunting Bradbury’s golden-bee armed  Martians 

                                       While dodging the Great Galactic Ghoul

Hey, never let it be said that science writers make great poets!