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!

Mars Pathfinder

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Mars Pathfinder was NASA mission to Mars, which launched on December 4th, 1996 and landed on the surface of Mars on July 4, 1997. Unlike the missions that went before it, the Pathfinder lander was also equipped with a tiny rover called Sojourner, which could venture away from the lander, crawl around the surface of Mars and study rocks up close. It was a relatively inexpensive mission that tested out many of the technologies build into later missions, like the Mars Exploration rovers Spirit and Opportunity.

The purpose of Pathfinder was to prove that the concept of “faster, better and cheaper” missions would work. Pathfinder only cost $150 million and was developed in under 3 years. It was also sent to study the surface of Mars, including the geochemistry of the rocks, the magnetic properties of the surface and the structure of the planet’s atmosphere.

When the Pathfinder mission arrived at Mars, it entered the atmosphere and deployed a parachute. Instead of using retrorockets to land gently on the surface, however, Pathfinder used an airbag system. This allowed it to save fuel; instead of landing gently, it was dropped from an altitude of about 100 meters onto the Martian surface. It bounced several times and came to a rest before opening up like the petals of a flower. Once everything checked out, the tiny Sojourner Rover was deployed onto the surface of Mars.

The area around the Pathfinder site had many rocks, large and small, and the NASA scientists gave them unique names like “Barnacle Bill” and “Yogi”. Sojourner was able to crawl around and study these rocks up close. It was able to study the chemical makeup of the rocks, and confirmed that they formed from past volcanic activity. Over the course of the entire mission, Pathfinder and Sojourner returned 16,500 images and made millions of measurements of the Martian atmosphere.

Pathfinder stopped communicating with Earth after 83 days on the surface of Mars. Its battery was only designed to be recharged 40 times, and once its battery stopped working, the spacecraft was unable to keep its electronics heated in the cold Martian night. After it stopped communicating, NASA decided to name the lander after Carl Sagan. It became The Carl Sagan Memorial Station.

We have written many articles abut the Mars Pathfinder mission for Universe Today. Here’s an article about photos of Mars Pathfinder taken from orbit, and research about a cold and wet early Mars.

Here’s a link to the original mission homepage for the Mars Pathfinder.

We’ve recorded several episodes of Astronomy Cast about missions to Mars. Start here, Episode 92: Missions to Mars, Part 1.

Source: NASA

Mars Reconnissance Orbiter Goes Into Safe Mode Again

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NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter put itself into a safe mode Wednesday morning, Aug. 26, for the fourth time this year. While in safe mode, the spacecraft can communicate normally with Earth, but aborts its scheduled activities, and awaits further instructions from ground controllers. “We hope to gain a better understanding of what is triggering these events and then have the spacecraft safely resume its study of Mars by next week,” said MRO Project Manager Jim Erickson.

Engineers have begun the process of diagnosing the problem prior to restoring the orbiter to normal science operations, a process expected to take several days. They will watch for engineering data from the spacecraft that might aid in identifying the cause of event and possibly of previous ones.

A possible cause for the frequent anomalies is cosmic ray hits. But the spacecraft has reacted differently with the various safe mode entries. The orbiter spontaneously rebooted its computer Wednesday, as it did in February and June, but did not switch to a redundant computer, as it did in early August.

To help in investigating a root cause of the three previous anomalies, engineers had programmed the spacecraft to frequently record engineering data onto non-volatile memory. That could give an improved record of spacecraft events leading up to the reboot.

MRO has been in Mars orbit since 2006, and has returned more data than all other current and past Mars missions combined.

Source: JPL