It may not look like much but it’s actually quite a lot: that bright smudge is Comet C/2013 A1 (Siding Spring) as it approached Mars to make its historic and much-anticipated close pass on Sunday, Oct. 19! The mountain-sized comet shot past Mars at an estimated distance of 88,000 miles traveling about 35 miles a second… that’s 20 times faster than a bullet fired from a 9mm handgun.
While the comet didn’t put on a big show in our sky here on Earth (although some photographers did capture it quite nicely in telescopes) the rovers on Mars and spacecraft in Martian orbit were keeping their electronic eyes on it… and NASA’s Opportunity rover, now nearly 11 years on Mars, was the first to send back a confirmed image!
In-situ spacecraft “selfies” are always a treat and this one is awesome times two: taken by the Philae lander piggybacked onto ESA’s Rosetta, it shows one of the spacecraft’s 14-meter-long (46-foot) solar arrays glinting with reflected sunlight while off in the distance is the “rubber duckie” Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko!
Here at Lights In The Dark I typically keep the articles and information to exploration occurring within our Solar System. But there have been amazing advances in the discovery of worlds far beyond our own family of planets and this recent news is quite fascinating: astronomers have spotted what appears to be a large gaseous exoplanet in the process of formation around a star only 335 light-years away — literally one of our own cosmic neighbors! Not only is this serendipitous, but also provides insight to how the planets and moons in our own Solar System may have formed, 4.6 billion years ago.
This Monday will mark the 25th anniversary of Voyager 2’s visit to Neptune, its historic close approach to the distant ice giant having been made back on Aug. 25, 1989. To mark the occasion, the Lunar and Planetary Institute has released a newly-restored, high-resolution map of Triton, Neptune’s largest moon and the last solid body to be visited by Voyager.
In addition to commemorating Voyager 2’s visit, the new map of Triton is also a sort of “teaser” to how we might expect to see Pluto and its moon Charon when they’re visited in July 2015 by New Horizons – which, by the way, will coincidentally be crossing the orbit of Neptune on Monday, Aug. 25.
The annotated version of the full planetary map, created by LPI’s Dr. Paul Schenk from Voyager 2 images, can be seen below:
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Wrapped in an atmosphere tinted pale blue by high-altitude methane, Uranus has occasionally been observed to develop large storms in its frigid windy skies. NASA’s Voyager 2 saw a few small storm clouds spotting Uranus during its flyby in Jan. 1986, and more recently some large but short-lived storms were observed by Hubble and the W.M. Keck Observatory as the planet moved toward its equinox in 2007. Now, seven years after its equinox, swirling storms are once again blooming on Uranus — and Keck astronomers have caught them on camera (while preparing for terrestrial hurricanes to make landfall!)
We don’t have to keep asking “Rosetta are we there yet?” anymore – we’re there! This morning, August 6 2014, Rosetta made its arrival at the ~4-km-wide comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, and soon sent back some incredible pictures of its surface taken with its OSIRIS science imager. The one above was acquired at a distance of 130 km (80 miles) and shows some very rugged terrain and large boulders, and but some rather smooth, flat regions too. (The same area had been imaged a few days earlier – see at right – but the closer distance obviously allows for much more detail.) Congratulations to ESA and Rosetta for becoming the first mission to rendezvous with a comet! Now the real science can begin!
“Europe’s Rosetta is now the first spacecraft in history to rendezvous with a comet, a major highlight in exploring our origins,” said Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA’s Director General. “Discoveries can start.”
“After ten years, five months and four days traveling towards our destination, looping around the Sun five times and clocking up 6.4 billion kilometers, we are delighted to announce finally ‘we are here.’
Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA’s Director General
How exciting – it’s almost time! After over ten years of travel ESA’s comet chaser Rosetta is mere hours away from its first rendezvous with the 4-km-wide comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko! We’ve all been seeing better and better images of the comet since it first became visible to Rosetta a few months back, with the past couple of weeks bringing us some exceptionally intriguing views as the spacecraft closes the gap, but on Wednesday, August 6 Rosetta will have officially arrived — and I can only imagine what we’ll be seeing then!