#HalleysComet: You could wait til 2061, or…

.. you can see bits of Halley’s comet anytime this week.





Space Billiards #NewHorizons @profmcateer

New Horizons was launched 2006 and has already flown 3 billion miles over 10 years on its journey of discovery. We now know Pluto is active with recent ice flows and a thin atmosphere. But the mission is far from over. It’s still moving outwards at about 15km per second, it has plenty of fuel, and the instrument packages are still working. Now astronomers get a free shot at the next target.

Screen Shot 2015-11-02 at 4.20.23 PMLuckily there is no shortage of targets.

The terrain beyond Pluto is a mostly unexplored treasure trove of opportunities for discovery, known as the Kuiper Belt. This realm is home to millions of small icy bodies, and present vital clues to the origins of the solar system. Usually the only chance we have to see one of these close up is when they visit us, as comets. But now as New Horizons plummets on into this space NASA have picked a target so we can really see one of these up close. The rather mundanely-named 2014MU69 was selected last year as the best follow on target. It is probably another 1.5 billion miles away and may be only a few 10km across, but we know its there and last week NASA carried out the course corrections to send the spacecraft that way. In Jan 2019, the spacecraft should thread the needle and intersect 2014MU69.

Kind of like space billiards, but with moving targets.

This mission hasn’t actually been approved by NASA yet but the additional expense getting to MU69 is small compared to the large payoff. Opportunities to visit our distant cousins are rare, so this is one we’ll take advantage of.

A Tyrannosaurus Wrecks #DeathByComet #DeathByVolcano @profmcateer

There is no doubt that a big rock from space hurtled through the Earth’s atmosphere at the same approximate time that the dinosaurs were eliminated from the species chain 65 million years ago. But despite this common knowledge, there is still an open question as to whether Dinosaurs were on the way out anyway, whether a new spurt of volcanic eruptions finally knocked them off, or whether really was a case of Death By Comet.


New research published in Science suggest it may have been the perfect storm of all three of three reasons.

State shift in Deccan volcanism at the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary, possibly induced by impact

As reported on EarthSky.org

A team of geologists have uncovered evidence that an asteroid impact on Earth 66 million years ago accelerated huge Indian volcanic eruptions – known as the Deccan Traps – for hundreds of thousands of years. The researchers suggest that, together, these planet-wide catastrophes led to the extinction of many land and marine animals, including the dinosaurs.

The researchers found that the eruptions accelerated within 50,000 years of the asteroid impact and were likely reignited by the impact, which may have generated magnitude 9 earthquakes or stronger everywhere on Earth.

For 35 years, paleontologists and geologists have debated the role that these two global events – the asteroid impact and the Deccan Traps eruptions – played in the last mass extinction. One side claims the eruptions were irrelevant, and the other side claims the impact was a blip in a long-term die-off.

The new evidence includes what the researcher say are the most accurate dates yet for the volcanic eruptions before and after the impact. The new dates show that the Deccan Traps lava flows, which at the time were erupting at a slower pace, doubled in output within 50,000 years of the asteroid or comet impact that is thought to have initiated the last mass extinction on Earth.

Both the impact and the volcanism would have blanketed the planet with dust and noxious fumes, say the scientists, drastically changing the climate and sending many species to an early grave.

Luckily for us humans, looks like the Dinosaurs never stood a chance.

The Earth, Moon and Comet 67/P showing how they would appear in the same light conditions (Not to correct size scale)

BOGOF? For asteroids? #rosetta #DuckComet

7 papers in the free special edition of Science magazine yesterday with results from the Rosetta mission. The duck-shaped comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko,is giving up its secrets one by one. And its biggest secret may be BOGOF.

Recall this great mission had a long journey to its target and then even landed on the surface of the asteroid.


These set of initial results present new light on many different topics.

First up, the type of water on the comet is not the same type of water we have on Earth. So while comets may still have brought water to Earth, this comet is not an example of one that could have done so.

Second, the comet is spitting out gas in very strange and complex manned. It is a weird comet, after all – it looks more like two comets stuck together, which leads is nicely onto the next finding – maybe it is 2 comets stuck together.It may well turn out that the two blobs of the comet are different material, so this may have started out as two bodies, coallesed into one. So, Buy One Get One Free

Finally, it density is similar to that in the insoles of your new shoes – that aerogel that gives you a nice smooth walk. This is much lighter than anticipated, so the scientific models will have to adapt.

More to come as the comet gets closer to the Sun over the next 8 months.

Rubber does bounce. #67/p #philae #rosetta


When the Europe Space Agency saw the comet in detail a few weeks ago, it was a little upsetting. Rather than the usual ’roundish’ shape, this comet was very clearly shaped like a rubber duck. This was going to make the landing difficult. But today they soft-landed their Philae probe onto the comet. Undoubtedly this image will be one of the most memorable of this campaign as the washing-machine sized probe started it journey onto the surface, capping a ten-year, four-billion-mile journey.

However there was one glitch. As comets are not really ‘solid’ they have a unusual and somewhat unpredictable gravity. The plan was to fire grappling hooks and grab onto the comet upon landing. However, the harpoons failed to fire and so the probe bounced. At least once. Maybe more. It did send a signal so it looks alive. And it has missed the boulders, cliffs and gas-venting cracks in the vicinity. We’ll know more over the next few days as we communicate with the Rosetta mothership, still in orbit around the comet.

Then, onto drilling and the search for water.

Lucy in the sky with diamonds. #CometDiamonds #Younger Dryas

Diamonds. Millions of them, for free. Unfortunately they are microscopic but it turns out they are evidence of a catastrophic climate change that occurred about 13,000 years ago known as the Younger Dryas event. The new discovery is presented in newest journal of geology


The Younger Dryas event was a real Big Freeze, a 1000-yr period of cold climatic conditions and drought leading to global climate change and extinctions. One of the many theories to explain this freeze is that of a comet, or a series of comets striking Earth. However, these comets would also have left evidence of their path through the Earth’s atmosphere- and this is where the nanodiamonds come into the story. This new study has found a number of these nanodiamonds across the world, material that of exactly the correct age, and material that could only have been formed by a large comet crashing into a Earth.

From such a cataclysmic event, diamonds were created in the sky.

Our new visitor



The Hubble Space Telescope captured this image of Comet C/2012 S1 (ISON) on April 10, 2013 when the comet was slightly closer than Jupiter’s orbit at a distance of 386 million miles from the sun (394 million miles from Earth). This comet is expected to put on a spectacular display in Earth’s sky – visible from both the Northern and Southern Hemisphere – in late 2013. It might even become a daytime comet!

Even at its current great distance from the Earth and sun, the comet is already active as sunlight warms the surface and causes frozen volatiles to sublimate. A detailed analysis of the dust coma surrounding the solid, icy nucleus reveals a strong jet blasting dust particles off the sunward-facing side of the comet’s nucleus. Preliminary measurements from the Hubble images suggest that the nucleus of ISON is no larger than three or four miles across. This is remarkably small considering the high level of activity observed in the comet so far, said researchers. Astronomers are using these images to measure the activity level of this comet and constrain the size of the nucleus, in order to predict the comet’s activity when it skims 700,000 miles above the Sun’s roiling surface on November 28.

The comet’s dusty coma, or head of the comet, is approximately 3,100 miles across, or 1.2 times the width of Australia. A dust tail extends more than 57,000 miles, far beyond Hubble’s field of view. More careful analysis is currently underway to improve these measurements and to predict the possible outcome of the sungrazing perihelion passage of this comet.

ISON stands for International Scientific Optical Network, a group of observatories in ten countries who have organized to detect, monitor, and track objects in space. ISON is managed by the

Institute of Applied Mathematics, part of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Naked eye comet


“Certainly not a ‘great comet’ by any means,” astronomer Alan Hale, the co-discoverer of 1997’s Comet Hale-Bopp, wrote in a posting to the Comets-ML online forum. “The visibility should hopefully improve over the next few nights as it climbs higher out of the twilight, but I don’t foresee anything spectacular.” So our latest celestial visitor, comet panstarrs, might not be bright as we would have hoped, but maybe here in southwestern desert we will get a good view.

That’s what makes Tuesday’s viewing opportunity so key: On March 12, PanSTARRS should be sitting just to the left of the crescent moon, as indicated in this sky chart from SpaceWeather.com. The moon will thus serve as a guidepost for you to turn your binoculars to the right spot just after sunset. There will be about a 10- to 20-minute window to catch the comet each night starting about March 12 and going through the end of the month. It will get dimmer night after night, so Tuesday is the prime date and experienced amateurs at high elevations with no cloud may get a good view. So go round to your astronomer friend just after sunset and see if you can find it.

Spectacular cosmic coincidence


A 10 tonne asteroid has crashed into Russia early this morning. The large piece of space rock probably shattered 20 miles above the ground, it enough fragments made it all the way down to Earth to cause significant damage. The small crater in the ice above is the result of one of the fragments. At least 950 people were injured as the resulting shockwave blew out windows and shook buildings in the Ural Mountains.

“It was quite extraordinary,” Chelyabinsk resident Polina Zolotarevskaya told BBC News. “We saw a very bright light and then there was a kind of a track, white and yellow in the sky.” “The explosion was so strong that some windows in our building and in the buildings that are across the road and in the city in general, the windows broke.”

Your can see it for yourself here


Asteroids this size strike the Earth several hundred times a year, but are mostly over sea or desolate places and mostly burn up. But this event shows that when the trajectory is right, it can cause a lot of damage. Scientists have played down suggestions that there is any link between the event in the Urals and 2012 DA14, an asteroid expected to race past the Earth on Friday at a distance of just 27,700km (17,200 miles) – the closest ever predicted for an object of that size. The two asteroids approached from different directions, so it appears to be a cosmic coincidence.

Fingers crossed, could be spectacular


comet ison

A comet blazing toward Earth could outshine the full moon when it passes by at the end of next year – if it survives its close encounter with the sun. Comet ISON’s path is very similar to a comet that passed by Earth in 1680, one which was so bright its tail reportedly could be seen in daylight.
The projected orbit of comet ISON is so similar to the 1680 comet, sketched above, that some scientists are wondering if they are fragments from a common parent body.

The recently discovered object, known as comet ISON, is due to fly within 1.2 million miles (1.9 million km) from the center of the sun on November 28, 2013. As the comet approaches, heat from the sun will vaporize ices in its body, creating what could be a spectacular tail that is visible in Earth’s night sky without telescopes or even binoculars from about October 2013 through January 2014.

If the comet survives, that is.

Comet ISON could break apart as it nears the sun, or it could fail to produce a tail of ice particles visible from Earth. Celestial visitors like Comet ISON hail from the Oort Cloud, a cluster of frozen rocks and ices that circle the sun about 50,000 times farther away than Earth’s orbit. Every so often, one will be gravitationally bumped out from the cloud and begin a long solo orbit around the sun.

On September 21, two amateur astronomers from Russia spotted what appeared to be a comet in images taken by a 16-inch (0.4-meter) telescope that is part of the worldwide International Scientific Optical Network, or ISON, from which the object draws its name. Novichonok and co-discoverer Vitali Nevski followed up the next night with a bigger telescope at the Maidanak Observatory in Uzbekistan. Other astronomers did likewise, confirming the object, located beyond Jupiter’s orbit in the constellation Cancer, was indeed a comet.

Comet ISON…could be the brightest comet seen in many generations – brighter even than the full moon.