Opportunity Rover takes first pictures of Comet Siding Spring from Mars

Comet Siding Spring photographed October 19, 2014 by the Opportunity Rover. Stars show as point and the streaks are probably cosmic ray hits on the sensor during the exposure. Click for original. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Darn rover’s been there more than 10 years and still producing firsts. Around 4:13 a.m. local time October 19, not long before the beginning of morning twilight, NASA’s Opportunity Rover pointed its panoramic camera at Comet Siding Spring in the constellation Eridanus and took a historic photograph – the first of a comet seen from the surface of another planet.

Another photo of the comet taken by Opportunity. Click for original. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Sure, it’s just a fuzzy spot, but like Galileo’s first look at Jupiter through his primitive telescope, remarkable all the same. I found the photos while digging through the raw images posted on the Opportunity website earlier this morning. There were only three of the night sky, one of which clearly showed a fuzzy object. If you look closely, the comet looks elongated. That might be from trailing during the time exposure or could be a hint of its tail.

Time exposure of the night sky taken by NASA’s Curiosity Rover on October 19. You can see real stars if you look closely but most of the specks are noise. No sign of the comet. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Unfortunately I couldn’t find the comet in the several pictures returned by the Curiosity Rover. Each is heavily speckled with noise but no matter how I tried to tone and stretch the photos, no comet. Maybe NASA has other pictures it will offer after they’re cleaned up.

Map showing the landing sites of rovers and probes successfully landed on Mars. Opportunity is located 1.9 degrees south of the Martian equator in the dark feature called Sinus Meridiani. Credit: NASA

I should emphasize here that we’re still awaiting confirmation from NASA that these pictures really do show the comet, but it appears to be the real thing.

Next to a greatly overexposed Mars, we see Comet Siding Spring continuing on its way today October 20, 2014. Copyright: Rolando Ligustri

Mars probes A-OK after dramatic comet flyby

This artist’s concept shows NASA’s Mars orbiters lining up behind the Red Planet for their “duck and cover” maneuver to shield them from comet dust from the close flyby of comet Siding Spring (C/2013 A1) on Oct. 19, 2014. Credit: NASA

All three U.S. spacecraft orbiting the Red Planet reported back in good health after their close encounter with Comet Siding Spring this afternoon. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Odyssey and Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) took shelter behind Mars during the half-hour when the comet’s dust particles posed the greatest hazard for the probes. Each also gathered data on the comet before during and after the approach. Click on the links to check the mission status of each orbiter.

This illustration shows where the comet was in the sky above the rover when it was taking photos earlier this evening. Hopefully, we’ll see them soon. Credit: NASA

So far, so good. Meanwhile, NASA’s Curiosity Rover shot photos of fleeing, dirty ice-ball between 4-6 p.m. Central Daylight Time as skies darkened after sunset in Gale Crater. No pictures have been posted yet, but I’ve been monitoring websites and feeds like a mall security officer.


Come Siding Spring comes out the other side!

As for the comet, it survived its brush too. Photos and videos made during and after the encounter clearly show Siding Spring passing Mars intact. The video was made from still photos shot earlier this evening by Fritz Helmut Hemmerich from 3,900 feet in Tenerife in the Canary Islands.

Set the alarm and boil the tea, it’s time for the Orionid meteor shower

The Orionids peak Tuesday and Wednesday mornings Oct. 21-22 next week when an observer might see 20-25 meteors an hour from a dark sky. They’ll appear to radiate above Betelgeuse in northern Orion. Source: Stellarium

The coming week’s menu features a meteoric tossed salad of Taurid fireballs crossing paths with the annual Orionid meteor shower. While the Taurids are a broad, sparse stream coming in dribs and drabs throughout October and November, the Orionids peak on the mornings of October 21-22. Expect to see 20 meteors an hour emanating from a point of sky above the bright star Betelgeuse in the hunter’s shoulder.

Each streak of light you see signals the incineration of a flake of Halley’s Comet, the parent comet of the Orionids. Every year in late October, Earth cuts across Halley’s orbit and bits of dust shed by the comet from previous passes near the sun burn up as they strike the upper atmosphere at speeds of around 148,000 mph.

Composite of a recent Orionid meteor shower taken with an all-sky camera. Credit: NASA

It’s been a couple years since I’ve seen the shower due to clouds or moonlight, but to the patient observer they’re thrilling to watch. Orionids are extremely fast – most tear across the sky in a second or less. Don’t even bother to alert your observing companions if you see one. It’ll be long gone even as the words leave your mouth, though if you’re lucky, some meteors will leave glowing trails of ionized air or even a curl of cosmic smoke (dust) in their wakes.

“The Orionid meteor shower is not the strongest, but it is one of the most beautiful showers of the year,” says Bill Cooke, head of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office.

Composite photo of an Orionid meteor shower taken a few years ago. The constellation Orion is seen at lower right center. Credit: SLOOH

This year’s shower won’t be compromised by moonlight either. It may even be enhanced by it. On Tuesday morning, a fingernail crescent will attempt to steal the show as it rises in the east at the start of morning twilight. Which brings us to the best time to view the Orionids.

I’ve drawn the map above for 2 a.m. local time. That’s when the radiant is high enough in the sky for a good show to begin, but the hours just before dawn are a tad better as the radiant point is higher yet. The ideal time would be from 3-6 a.m. Find a place where light pollution is at a minimum and set up facing south-southeast for the best view. A comfy reclining chair and blanket or sleeping bag will help you stay relaxed and warm. It is almost November after all!

Monster sunspot could stir up auroras

The sun photographed this morning by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Telescope at 11:30 a.m. CDT this morning October 18. Credit: NASA

Not today and not tomorrow, but a monster sunspot group rounding the eastern limb of the sun could spunk up the fall aurora season. Active region 2192 harbors a Jupiter-sized sunspot that’s just now visible with the naked eye using a safe solar mylar filter or #14 welder’s glass. I spotted it very close to the southeastern edge of the sun today. In the coming days, it will rotate into better view, making for an easy catch with the naked eye or small telescope. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of a safe filter. You can purchase one HERE for naked eye viewing or HERE for your telescope.

Coronal mass ejection shot out by flare activity in new sunspot group 2192 on October 14 before it even rounded the sun’s limb. Image from the SOHO coronagraph. Click for video. Credit: NASA/ESA

Even before the behemoth came into view, it spawned a brilliant coronal mass ejection on October 14 and several M-class medium strength flares. If we assume that the giant spot stays potent, the sun will rotate it around to face Earth in about 6 days. Flaring and other activity would then stream in our direction.

It will also spice up the partial solar eclipse next Thursday afternoon. Watch for the black limb of the moon to not only eclipse the sun but this sunspot too!

Update: Sunspot group 2192 unleashed an strong X-1 class flare around midnight Oct. 18-19. Any material it may have launched into space would have missed Earth by a wide margin because of the group’s position near the sun’s edge.

Comet-Mars encounter coming Sunday: See it through Martian eyes

Simulation of how comet C/2013 Siding Spring will appear in Martian skies around midnight October 18-19, 2014 from the Curiosity rover’s location near Mars’ equator. Credit: Solarsystemscope.com

No one knows exactly how Comet Siding Spring will look from the Red Planet when it blows by just 83,263 miles (134,000 km)  from its surface. Certainly a whole lot brighter than we see it from Earth!  The close shave will happen around 1:28 p.m. CDT this Sunday October 19th.

I spotted it last night at about magnitude +11 not far from Mars in a 15-inch (37-cm) telescope from northern Minnesota. The comet was a faint smudge, but then my eyes were 151 million miles from the duo. Distances like can suck the drama right out of a comet. Seen up close from Mars, it would drop the jaws of a entire crew of astronauts.

If Comet Siding Spring were passing by Earth instead of Mars it would be only 1/3 the distance of the moon from Earth. Credit: NASA

When nearest, Siding Spring is expected to shine at magnitude -5 or about twice as bright as Venus. Mind you, that estimate considers the entire comet crunched down into a dot. But for those who remember, Comet Hale-Bopp’s appearance in spring 1997, it shown at zero magnitude, 100 times fainter than Siding Spring, and made for one of the most impressive naked eye sights in years.

More recently, Comet McNaught climaxed at magnitude -5 in the daytime sky near the sun in January 2007. It was plainly visible in binoculars and telescopes in a blue sky if you knew exactly where to look and took care to avoid the sun. Martians will be far luckier as their comet will appear in a dark sky.


Comet C/2013 Siding Spring as it rises and sets over the Curiosity Rover this weekend October 18-19. Click the control to start, to pause and for other options. Credit: Solarsystemscope.com

To help you picture it the folks at Solarsystemscope.com, famed for their simulations of the dearly departed Comet ISON, have created another gem, a look at Comet Siding Spring as it wheels across the robotic gaze of the Curiosity Rover in the next few nights.

Artist view of the comet passing closest to Mars this Sunday. At the time, the Mars orbiters from the U.S., Europe and India will be huddled on the opposite side of the planet to avoid possible impacts from comet dust. Credit: NASA

Seen from Mars, the comet bobs along Eridanus the River southwest of Orion, passing high in the southern sky overnight. What a sight! The comet nucleus is only about 0.4 miles (700 meters) across, but the coma or atmosphere fluffs out to around 12,000 miles (19,300 km). Seen from the ground, Siding Spring would span about 8°of sky or 16 full moons from head to tail. Moving at 1.5° per minute, it will be fast enough to see crawl across the heavens in real time with the naked eye. Ah, if only we could be there.

Rest assured we’ll get the latest images and results from the rovers and orbiting spacecraft posted here asap.

Comet Siding Spring seen from Earth as it crosses the rich star clouds of the constellation Ophiuchus on October 16. Credit: Damian Peach

As usual, several outlets will be featuring live webcasts and special programs Sunday. Here are two:

* SLOOH starting at 1:15 p.m. CDT (6:15 p.m. UT) Sunday Oct. 19
* Gianluca Masi’s Virtual Telescope site starting at 11:45 a.m. CDT (4:45 p.m. UT)

An exciting weekend lies ahead!

Rosetta update Oct. 16 – new selfie, landing site close-up, more great videos

Rosetta’s Philae lander snapped a ‘selfie’ at comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko from a distance of about 9.9 miles from the surface of the comet. The image was taken on October 7 and captures the side of the Rosetta spacecraft and one of Rosetta’s 46-foot-long (14-m) solar wings, with the comet in the background. Click to enlarge. Copyright: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA

Scope out these new images from the Rosetta probe now less than a month away from dropping the Philae lander onto Comet 67P C-G’s dusty-icy surface. The first picture was taken by the the landers’ Comet Infrared and Visible Analyzer (CIVA) looking out from Rosetta toward the comet. You might remember Philae’s first selfie back on September 7 taken from 31 miles (50 km) away. This new image brings us to within 9.9 miles (16 km) of the comet’s surface.

The photo’s a composite of two images made with two separate exposures to capture the dark comet and Rosetta insulation (one exposure) and the bright solar array. The image is the last from Philae before the lander separates from Rosetta on November 12 and gently floats down to the comet’s surface.

Not only is the comet larger in the new photo but a very distinct jet of gas of vaporizing ice and dust is visible near the junction of the neck and larger lobe.

A new mosaic image from the Rosetta spacecraft shows Philae’s primary landing site up close. Touchdown is expected at 10 a.m. CST on Nov. 12  Click to enlarge. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

A new mosaic image from Rosetta spacecraft shows Site J, the primary landing site on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko for the mission’s Philae lander. Rosetta is the first mission to orbit a comet and to attempt a soft landing on one.

The mosaic comprises two images taken by Rosetta’s OSIRIS narrow-angle camera on Sept. 14, 2014, from a distance of about 19 miles (30 kilometers). The image scale is 1.6 feet (0.5 meters) per pixel. The red ellipse is centered on the landing site and is approximately 1,600 feet (500-m) in diameter or a third of a mile. That’s just a walk around the block!


New video from Mattias Malmer titled “Rising over the edge” – A synthetic 3D view of 67P / Churyumov-Gerasimenko October 8

On November 12, the Rosetta spacecraft will release Philae at 3:03 a.m. Central Standard Time (9:03 a.m. Greenwich Time); 7 hours later it will land at Site J at around 10 a.m. CST (4 p.m. Greenwich).


Cheops Ascent by Mattias Malmer

If you like that video, here’s another in 3D (use red-blue anaglyph glasses to see best). Cheops is the name of the boulder in the photo located on the neck of the comet. It’s about 148-feet (48-m) across. The “synthetic” in the video titles refers to Malmer’s method creating them. He takes real images and digitally drapes them on a model of the comet to create a three-dimensional appearance.

Auroras in the north tonight Oct. 14-15

Aurora low in the northern sky around 10:30 p.m. CDT this evening October 14, 2014. Credit: Bob King

Earlier this evening, a glancing blow from a solar blast that left the sun on October 10th jiggled Earth’s magnetic domain to produce a modest display of northern lights. Forecasters originally expected the coronal mass ejection (CME) to miss Earth. My astronomy class and I noticed a low arc in the north as early as 8:30 p.m. A half hour later, the arc broke apart into a beautiful set of evenly-spaced rays across the northern sky.

These slowly faded back to a quiet glow as if the aurora decided to take a nap and then re-brightened about 9:30. Right now at 11 p.m. the display has returned to a quiet arc about 5 degrees above the northern horizon directly below the Big Dipper. Something about it reminds me of a pale green feather boa.

The Kp index, a measure of how magnetically disturbed the upper atmosphere is, hit 5 this afternoon and evening, the mark of a minor geomagnetic storm. Auroras are usually seen across the northern border states when Kp=5. Credit: NOAA

NOAA space weather shows a G1 minor geomagnetic storm underway since the afternoon. Activity may be dropping off now, but it’s hard to say for sure, so keep a lookout for auroras tonight if you live in the northern states and southern Canada. Besides aftereffects of the solar blast, a chance for more auroras will continue the next couple nights due to “solar sector boundary crossings”. These are changes in the direction of the magnetic field within the solar plasma (electron and proton mix) that continually streams from the sun called the solar wind.

Trick or treat – time for the Halloween fireballs!

A Taurid fireball photographed Oct. 28, 2005 by Hiroyuki Lida of Toyama, Japan. At top is the constellation Orion and his three Belt stars. Credit: Hiroyuki Lida

We don’t normally associate October with big meteor showers. That’s reserved for the August Perseids and December Geminids. But just in time for Halloween, this month offers some tasty treats.

October is Taurid fireball season with two separate showers radiating from in and near the constellation Taurus the Bull. Both make for weak displays with counts of 10 or fewer meteors an hour. But what they lack in number they make up in brilliance. While most shower meteors originate from sand to peanut-sized rocks, the Taurids have a large proportion of larger pebble pieces. When the big stuff burns up overhead, it produces bright fireballs.

Both showers are spawned by material left behind by Comet 2P/Encke which orbits the sun once every 3.3 years – one of the shortest known. When Earth intersects the debris stream the rocks strike the atmosphere fast enough to completely vaporize as flashes of light called meteors.

The Taurids are a pair of small showers that trace back to Comet 2P/Encke. They’re active all this month and next and appear to radiate from Taurus the Bull. The radiants slowly travel from west to east across the sky during that time – I’ve marked where they are in early November. Source: Stellarium

The Southern Taurids are active now through late October with the Northern Taurids taking over around Halloween and carrying the ball through November. Because of the unusually large proportion of fireballs from these dual showers, the American Meteor Society (AMS) notes an increase in the number of fireball reports from September through November each year.

Comet Encke and the trail of dust and debris it leaves behind in its orbit photographed by the Spitzer Space Telescope. Some of that material burns up in Earth’s atmosphere as Taurid meteors. Credit: NASA

Taurids travel slower than most meteor streams because Comet Encke’s tight little orbit only reaches into the asteroid belt. Since they don’t have as far to “fall” as they return to Earth’s vicinity, they’re not traveling as fast as some other showers like the Perseids, whose parent comet strays into remote space 51 times Earth’s distance from the sun.

Because of how Earth and the Taurid stream encounter each other, the Taurids play catch-up as they approach Earth somewhat from behind rather than head-on. Combined with their slower-than-usual speeds, they hit the atmosphere at only 61,000 mph (98,000 km/hr). OK, that’s still darn fast but more than twice as slow as the familiar Perseid meteors.

9-hour composite image of the Taurid meteor shower taken on November 4-5, 2008 taken with an all-sky camera in Walker County, Georgia. Credit: NASA

While you probably won’t make a one-night vigil for the Taurids as you would richer showers, be on the lookout for bright meteors this fall.

Taurus rises in the evening hours in the east, so you can start watching from about 10 o’clock all the way to dawn. If you spot a meteor and can trace it backward toward the direction of the Seven Sisters or Pleiades star cluster, chances are you’ve spotted the flaming farewell of a piece of Encke’s Comet.

Next week, we’ll take a closer look at another October meteor shower, this one originating from Halley’s Comet called the Orionids. Stay tuned.

Earth and Mars, space pals forever

This single shot of Earth and Mars together was taken on May 24, 2014 with NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft as it orbited the moon. Click to see full, hi-res photo. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

Yesterday we watched the total lunar eclipse from Mercury. Today, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) expands our gaze to encompass both Earth and Mars together in space.

LRO’s viewing post was none other than the moon located 240,000 miles from Earth. On May 24th, instead of staring down at the lunar surface, NASA engineers sent commands to the spacecraft to point its Narrow Angle Camera toward Earth. On that date the two worlds were in conjunction from LRO’s perspective.


Mars and Earth from lunar orbit

Mars was about 70 million miles away (112.5 million km) away at the time or 300 times farther away from the Moon than the Earth. That’s why it’s only a tiny dot in the sky.

Moon-facing hemisphere of Mars on May 8, 2014 seen from lunar orbit. Instruments on LRO sometimes use stars and planets for calibration or other special observations. During one of these off-Moon observations, LROC imaged Mars. The planet is so small in LRO’s camera it could only make out the two larger features shown above. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

I know a commercial photographer who takes pictures of babies when they’re asleep. She has to invest a lot time into each of her photos, much of it spent waiting for the children to fall asleep! Likewise the LRO team. To make sure they got the timing and exposure right, the team practiced on Mars weeks in advance.

Seeing the two planets in the same frame seems to shrink the distance between them and tempt us to shove off from home on an exploratory visit.

The LRO folks put it this way:

“The juxtaposition of Earth and Mars seen from the Moon is a poignant reminder that the Moon would make a convenient waypoint for explorers bound for the fourth planet and beyond! In the near-future, the Moon could serve as a test-bed for construction and resource utilization technologies. Longer-range plans may include the Moon as a resource depot or base of operations for interplanetary activities.”

Ever seen a lunar eclipse from Mercury? Me neither … till now


Wednesday’s lunar eclipse photographed by NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft at Mercury

As millions of us awoke at dawn and trundled outside to watch the total lunar eclipse this week another set of eyes was keeping tabs from afar. 66 million miles away, NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft turned its camera toward Earth to capture several images of the moon disappearing into our planet’s shadow. Laced together, they make for a brief but fascinating glimpse of planetary bodies in motion.

Two of the still images showing Earth and moon before and during Wednesday morning’s total eclipse. Credit: NASA

The animation was constructed from 31 images taken two minutes apart from 5:18 to 6:18 a.m. EDT. The images start just before the Moon entered the umbra, the darkest part of the Earth’s shadow.

“From Mercury, the Earth and Moon normally appear as if they were two very bright stars,” noted Hari Nair, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, in Laurel, Md. “During a lunar eclipse, the Moon seems to disappear during its passage through the Earth’s shadow, as shown in the movie.”

MESSENGER photographed Earth and moon on May 6, 2010 from 114 million miles (183 million km) away. Credit: NASA

Because the moon is so much darker than Earth its brightness has been increased 25 times to show its disappearance more clearly. I’ve included another picture of the Earth and moon against the starry backdrop of deep space also photographed by MESSENGER. Sure puts things in perspective. While not as breathtaking as photos of Earth taken by the Apollo astronauts, seeing our tiny home floating in the void effectively communicates how improbable our existence is. Thank goodness life got a grip and kept it. After 3.5 billion years of evolution the double helix has proven itself a force with which to be reckoned.

The 133-mile-wide double ringed crater Vivaldi captured at sunrise. The low sun highlights valleys and chains of secondary impact craters radiating away from it. Credit: NASA

MESSENGER has been in orbit around Mercury since March 2011 studying the chemical composition of the surface, measuring planet’s magnetic field, mapping polar ices and of course taking pictures. Enjoy a few recent ones.

Hollows on the floor of an unnamed crater on Mercury. Hollows may be areas “eaten away” by the ceaseless bombardment of particles in the solar wind. Or they may form when heat from volcanic activity melts away softer rocks. No one knows for sure. Credit: NASA