Comets visible to the naked eye are a rare delicacy in the celestial smorgasbord of objects in the nighttime sky. Scientists estimate that the opportunity to see one of these icy dirtballs advertising their cosmic presence so brilliantly they can be seen without the aid of a telescope or binoculars happens only once every five to 10 years. That said, there may be two naked-eye comets available for your viewing pleasure this year.
"You might have heard of a comet ISON, which may become a spectacular naked-eye comet later this fall," said Amy Mainzer, the principal investigator of NASA's NEOWISE mission at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and self-described cosmic icy dirtball fan. "But if you have the right conditions you don't have to wait for ISON. Within a few days, comet PANSTARRS will be making its appearance in the skies of the Northern Hemisphere just after twilight."
Discovered in June 2011, comet 2011 L4 (PANSTARRS) bears the name of the telescopic survey that discovered it -- the less than mellifluous sounding "Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System" which sits atop the Haleakala volcano in Hawaii.
Since its discovery a year-and-a-half ago, observing comet PANSTARRS has been the exclusive dominion of comet aficionados in the Southern Hemisphere, but that is about to change. As the comet continues its well-understood and safe passage through the inner-solar system, its celestial splendor will be lost to those in the Southern Hemisphere, but found by those up north.
"There is a catch to viewing comet PANSTARRS," said Mainzer. "This one is not that bright and is going to be low on the western horizon, so you'll need a relatively unobstructed view to the southwest at twilight and, of course, some good comet-watching weather."
Well, there is one more issue -- the time of day, or night, to view it.
"Look too early and the sky will be too bright," said Rachel Stevenson, a NASA Postdoctoral Fellow at JPL. "Look too late, the comet will be too low and obstructed by the horizon. This comet has a relatively small window."
By March 8, comet PANSTARRS may be viewable for those with a totally unobstructed view of the western horizon for about 15 minutes after twilight. On March 10, it will make its closest approach to the sun about 28 million miles (45 million kilometers) away. As it continues its nightly trek across the sky, the comet may get lost in the sun's glare but should return and be visible to the naked eye by March 12. As time marches on in the month of March, the comet will begin to fade away slowly, becoming difficult to view (even with binoculars or small telescopes) by month's end. The comet will appear as a bright point of light with its diffuse tail pointing nearly straight up from the horizon like an exclamation point.
What, if any, attraction does seeing a relatively dim naked-eye comet with the naked eye hold for someone who works with them every day, with file after file of high-resolution imagery spilling out on her computer workstation?
"You bet I'm going to go look at it!" said Mainzer. "Comet PanSTARRS may be a little bit of a challenge to find without a pair of binoculars, but there is something intimately satisfying to see it with your own two eyes. If you have a good viewing spot and good weather, it will be like the Sword of Gryffindor, it should present itself to anyone who is worthy."
NASA detects, tracks and characterizes asteroids and comets passing relatively close to Earth using both ground- and space-based telescopes. The Near-Earth Object Observations Program, commonly called "Spaceguard," discovers these objects, characterizes a subset of them, and predicts their paths to determine if any could be potentially hazardous to our planet.
NASA's Cassini spacecraft will be swooping close to Saturn's moon Rhea on Saturday, March 9, the last close flyby of Rhea in Cassini's mission. The primary purpose will be to probe the internal structure of the moon by measuring the gravitational pull of Rhea against the spacecraft's steady radio link to NASA's Deep Space Network here on Earth. The results will help scientists understand whether the moon is homogeneous all the way through or whether it has differentiated into the layers of core, mantle and crust.
In addition, Cassini's imaging cameras will take ultraviolet, infrared and visible-light data from Rhea's surface. The cosmic dust analyzer will try to detect any dusty debris flying off the surface from tiny meteoroid bombardments to further scientists' understanding of the rate at which "foreign" objects are raining into the Saturn system.
Cassini will fly within about 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) of the surface. The time of closest approach is around 10:17 a.m. PST (1:17 p.m. EST). This is Cassini's fourth close flyby of Rhea.
On Feb. 10, 2015, Cassini will pass Rhea at about 29,000 miles (47,000 kilometers), but this is not considered a targeted flyby. Cassini has been in orbit around Saturn since 2004 and is in a second mission extension, known as the Solstice mission.
I was browsing NASA this morning and came across this photo of a full size mock up of the Hubble successor .... It's huge!
The James Webb Space Telescope (sometimes called JWST) is a large, infrared-optimized space telescope. The project is working to a 2018 launch date. Webb will find the first galaxies that formed in the early Universe, connecting the Big Bang to our own Milky Way Galaxy. Webb will peer through dusty clouds to see stars forming planetary systems, connecting the Milky Way to our own Solar System. Webb's instruments will be designed to work primarily in the infrared range of the electromagnetic spectrum, with some capability in the visible range.
Webb will have a large mirror, 6.5 meters (21.3 feet) in diameter and a sunshield the size of a tennis court. Both the mirror and sunshade won't fit onto a rocket fully open, so both will fold up and open once Webb is in outer space. Webb will reside in an orbit about 1.5 million km (1 million miles) from the Earth.
The James Webb Space Telescope was named after the NASA Administrator who crafted the Apollo program, and who was a staunch supporter of space science.
By Richard Branson
We are making fantastic progress on Virgin Galactic's preparations for travel to space. It has been an amazing, at times agonising process to get the space program this far, and as the weeks and months pass we are steadily witnessing more little bits of history.
The team just conducted an extremely significant night rocket motor firing, which has been described by Matt Stinemetze, Scaled Composites' Program Manager for the development and testing of our space vehicles, in the fantastically descriptive piece below. His words show the huge excitement now emanating from the Mojave Desert, as we move closer to breaking the sound barrier and then building up to full spaceflight in the coming months.
This project really means so much to all of the people involved, from the engineers to the future astronauts to supporters around the world who one day dream of going to space. Here are Matt's wonderful words to his team-mates:
"8:00 pm. On the dirt berm north of the test site we’re far enough from the city and the airport lights that it’s dark. It’s dark enough in fact that overhead millions of stars are visible, but no moon. Yet another surreal late night at work for Scaled. The murmur from the 50 or so people on the berm has subsided and there is an eerie silence as you’re inside the last minute. In front of us four large floodlights illuminate the white bug; two red strobes flash on either end. It’s just far enough away and just bright enough that you have to squint to make out the details
Kawoomph!… Instantly any speaking subsides and if it doesn’t, you can’t hear it. A large yellow flame has suddenly erupted 50 feet behind the white structure and a deafening roar has filled the night. Simultaneously, a large column of brown dust billows up a mile behind the flame. A smooth, earthy, roar/rumble unlike anything you’ve heard encompasses you. As the first few seconds tick by the shock wears off and you find yourself wondering what those cars on the bypass must be thinking (I’m sure at least a couple folks wandered onto the sound bumpers at the shoulder, heads straining westward wondering what in the world they were seeing).
The scene is so surreal, so overwhelming that you mentally start and stop the count two or three times not remembering where you left off. You squint, strain and then as quickly as it started it whooshes to an abrupt stop. Your eyes flicker, a white blur stains your vision long after it’s over. Behind you in the far distance, several seconds after the flame subsides, the heavy rumble of the echo across the mountains rattles to a stop. Wahoo!! the hill erupts into jubilation…. This isn’t sci-fi, and it’s not the scene from a book. This is your program and it happened on Thursday night February 28th, 2013. The first in a rapid series of final confirmation firings leading up to SpaceShipTwo's first rocket powered flight was completed in dramatic style!"
Image by Bob Morgan, Scaled Composites
By Richard Branson. Founder of Virgin Group
I've been watching this for a few days to see if they were able to refine the comets path. It looks like it may be a near miss but we will be watching and updating for sure. Here is the full story from NASA
Comet 2013 A1 (Siding Spring) will make a very close approach to Mars in October 2014.
The latest trajectory of comet 2013 A1 (Siding Spring) generated by the Near-Earth Object Program Office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., indicates the comet will pass within 186,000 miles (300,000 kilometers) of Mars and there is a strong possibility that it might pass much closer. The NEO Program Office's current estimate based on observations through March 1, 2013, has it passing about 31,000 miles (50,000 kilometers) from the Red Planet's surface. That distance is about two-and-a-half times that of the orbit of outermost moon, Deimos.
Scientists generated the trajectory for comet Siding Spring based on the data obtained by observations since October 2012. Further refinement to its orbit is expected as more observational data is obtained. At present, Mars lies within the range of possible paths for the comet and the possibility of an impact cannot be excluded. However, since the impact probability is currently less than one in 600, future observations are expected to provide data that will completely rule out a Mars impact.
During the close Mars approach the comet will likely achieve a total visual magnitude of zero or brighter, as seen from Mars-based assets. From Earth, the comet is not expected to reach naked eye brightness, but it may become bright enough (about magnitude 8) that it could be viewed from the southern hemisphere in mid-September 2014, using binoculars, or small telescopes.
Scientists at the Near-Earth Object Program Office estimate that comet Siding Spring has been on a more than a million-year journey, arriving from our solar system's distant Oort cloud. The comet could be complete with the volatile gases that short period comets often lack due to their frequent returns to the sun's neighborhood.
Rob McNaught discovered comet 2013 A1 Siding Spring on Jan. 3, 2013, at Siding Spring Observatory in Australia. A study of germane archival observations has unearthed more images of the comet, extending the observation interval back to Oct. 4, 2012.
NASA detects, tracks and characterizes asteroids and comets passing close to Earth using both ground- and space-based telescopes. The Near-Earth Object Observations Program, commonly called "Spaceguard," discovers these objects, characterizes a subset of them, and plots their orbits to determine if any could be potentially hazardous to our planet.
The gravitational field surrounding this massive cluster of galaxies, Abell 68, acts as a natural lens in space to brighten and magnify the light coming from very distant background galaxies.
Like a fun house mirror, lensing creates a fantasy landscape of arc-like images and mirror images of background galaxies. The foreground cluster is 2 billion light-years away, and the lensed images come from galaxies far behind it.
In this photo, the image of a spiral galaxy at upper left has been stretched and mirrored into a shape similar to that of a simulated alien from the classic 1970s computer game "Space Invaders!" A second, less distorted image of the same galaxy appears to the left of the large, bright elliptical galaxy.
In the upper right of the photo is another striking feature of the image that is unrelated to gravitational lensing. What appears to be purple liquid dripping from a galaxy is a phenomenon called ram-pressure stripping. The gas clouds within the galaxy are being stripped out and heated up as the galaxy passes through a region of denser intergalactic gas.
This image was taken in infrared light by Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3, and combined with near-infrared observations from Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys.
The image is based in part on data spotted by Nick Rose in the Hubble's Hidden Treasures image processing competition.
PASADENA, Calif. - NASA's Mars rover Curiosity has transitioned from precautionary "safe mode" to active status on the path of recovery from a memory glitch last week. Resumption of full operations is anticipated by next week.
Controllers switched the rover to a redundant onboard computer, the rover's "B-side" computer, on Feb. 28 when the "A-side" computer that the rover had been using demonstrated symptoms of a corrupted memory location. The intentional side swap put the rover, as anticipated, into minimal-activity safe mode.
Curiosity exited safe mode on Saturday and resumed using its high-gain antenna on Sunday.
"We are making good progress in the recovery," said Mars Science Laboratory Project Manager Richard Cook, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "One path of progress is evaluating the A-side with intent to recover it as a backup. Also, we need to go through a series of steps with the B-side, such as informing the computer about the state of the rover -- the position of the arm, the position of the mast, that kind of information."
The cause for the A-side's memory symptoms observed last week remains to be determined.
NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Project is using Curiosity to assess whether areas inside Gale Crater ever offered a habitable environment for microbes. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
It may look like something from "The Lord of the Rings," but this fiery swirl is actually a planetary nebula known as ESO 456-67. Set against a backdrop of bright stars, the rust-colored object lies in the constellation of Sagittarius (The Archer), in the southern sky.
Despite the name, these ethereal objects have nothing at all to do with planets; this misnomer came about over a century ago, when the first astronomers to observe them only had small, poor-quality telescopes. Through these, the nebulae looked small, compact, and planet-like — and so were labeled as such.
When a star like the sun approaches the end of its life, it flings material out into space. Planetary nebulae are the intricate, glowing shells of dust and gas pushed outwards from such a star. At their centers lie the remnants of the original stars themselves — small, dense white dwarf stars.
In this image of ESO 456-67, it is possible to see the various layers of material expelled by the central star. Each appears in a different hue — red, orange, yellow, and green-tinted bands of gas are visible, with clear patches of space at the heart of the nebula. It is not fully understood how planetary nebulae form such a wide variety of shapes and structures; some appear to be spherical, some elliptical, others shoot material in waves from their polar regions, some look like hourglasses or figures of eight, and others resemble large, messy stellar explosions — to name but a few.