"To find anything comparable with our forthcoming ventures into space, we must go back far beyond Columbus, far beyond Odysseus—far, indeed, beyond the first ape-man. We must contemplate the moment, now irrevocably lost in the mists of time, when the ancestor off all of us came crawling out of the sea." - Arthur C. Clarke

(Image credit: Jim Abels; Ocean City, New Jersey)

NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day 2014 October 20

Comet Siding Spring Passes Mars 

Yesterday, a comet passed very close to Mars. In fact, Comet C/2013 A1 (Siding Spring) passed closer to the red planet than any comet has ever passed to Earth in recorded history. To take advantage of this unique opportunity to study the close interaction of a comet and a planet, humanity currently has five active spacecraft orbiting Mars: NASA’s MAVEN, MRO, Mars Odyssey, as well as ESA’s Mars Express, and India’s Mars Orbiter. Most of these spacecraft have now sent back information that they have not been damaged by small pieces of the passing comet. These spacecraft, as well as the two active rovers on the Martian surface — NASA’s Opportunity and Curiosity — have taken data and images that will be downloaded to Earth for weeks to come and likely studied for years to come. The featured image taken yesterday, however, was not taken from Mars but from Earth and shows Comet Siding Spring on the lower left as it passed Mars, on the upper right.

NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day 2015 January 21

The Complex Ion Tail of Comet Lovejoy

What causes the structure in Comet Lovejoy’s tail? Comet C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy), which is currently at naked-eye brightness and near its brightest, has been showing an exquisitely detailed ion tail. As the name implies, the ion tail is made of ionized gas — gas energized by ultraviolet light from the Sun and pushed outward by the solar wind. The solar wind is quite structured and sculpted by the Sun’s complex and ever changing magnetic field. The effect of the variable solar wind combined with different gas jets venting from the comet’s nucleus accounts for the tail’s complex structure. Following the wind, structure in Comet Lovejoy’s tail can be seen to move outward from the Sun even alter its wavy appearance over time.

The blue color of the ion tail is dominated by recombining carbon monoxide molecules, while the green color of the coma surrounding the head of the comet is created mostly by a slight amount of recombining diatomic carbon molecules. The featured three-panel mosaic image was taken nine days ago from the IRIDA Observatory in Bulgaria. Comet Lovejoy made it closest pass to the Earth two weeks ago and will be at its closest to the Sun in about ten days. After that, the comet will fade as it heads back into the outer Solar System, to return only in about 8,000 years.

NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day 2015 February 27

Long Lovejoy and Little Dumbbell

Buffeted by the solar wind, Comet Lovejoy’s crooked ion tail stretches over 3 degrees across this telescopic field of view, recorded on February 20. The starry background includes awesome bluish star Phi Persei below, and pretty planetary nebula M76 just above Lovejoy’s long tail. Also known as the Little Dumbbell Nebula, after its brighter cousin M27 the Dumbbell Nebula, M76 is only a Full Moon’s width away from the comet’s greenish coma. Still shining in northern hemisphere skies, this Comet Lovejoy (C/2014 Q2) is outbound from the inner solar system some 10 light-minutes or 190 million kilometers from Earth. But the Little Dumbbell actually lies over 3 thousand light-years away. Now sweeping steadily north toward the constellation Cassiopeia Comet Lovejoy is fading more slowly than predicted and is still a good target for small telescopes.