Tag Archives: comet


ESA enters into the sci-fi realm with ‘Ambitious’

European Space Agency has entered the area of science fiction in an unusual and innovative way of doing public outreach. This new experimental work was done in the form of a short film ‘Ambitious’, premiered on Friday in London.


Ambition is a collaboration between Platige Image and ESA. Directed by Tomek Bagiński and starring Aiden Gillen and Aisling Franciosi, Ambition was shot on location in Iceland, and screened on 24 October 2014 during the British Film Institute’s celebration of Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder, at the Southbank, London. 

Source: ESA

Artist’s impression of exocomets around Beta Pictoris. Credit: ESO

Two Families of Comets Found Around Nearby Star

Two Families of Comets Found Around Nearby Star

The HARPS instrument at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile has been used to make the most complete census of comets around another star ever created. A French team of astronomers has studied nearly 500 individual comets orbiting the star Beta Pictoris and has discovered that they belong to two distinct families of exocomets: old exocomets that have made multiple passages near the star, and younger exocomets that probably came from the recent breakup of one or more larger objects. The new results will appear in the journal Nature on 23 October 2014.

Beta Pictoris is a young star located about 63 light-years from the Sun. It is only about 20 million years old and is surrounded by a huge disc of material — a very active young planetary system where gas and dust are produced by the evaporation of comets and the collisions of asteroids.

Artist’s impression of exocomets around Beta Pictoris. Credit: ESO
Artist’s impression of exocomets around Beta Pictoris. Credit: ESO

Flavien Kiefer (IAP/CNRS/UPMC), lead author of the new study sets the scene: “Beta Pictoris is a very exciting target! The detailed observations of its exocomets give us clues to help understand what processes occur in this kind of young planetary system.”

For almost 30 years astronomers have seen subtle changes in the light from Beta Pictoris that were thought to be caused by the passage of comets in front of the star itself. Comets are small bodies of a few kilometres in size, but they are rich in ices, which evaporate when they approach their star, producing gigantic tails of gas and dust that can absorb some of the light passing through them. The dim light from the exocomets is swamped by the light of the brilliant star so they cannot be imaged directly from Earth.

To study the Beta Pictoris exocomets, the team analysed more than 1000 observations obtained between 2003 and 2011 with the HARPS instrument on the ESO 3.6-metre telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile.

The researchers selected a sample of 493 different exocomets. Some exocomets were observed several times and for a few hours. Careful analysis provided measurements of the speed and the size of the gas clouds. Some of the orbital properties of each of these exocomets, such as the shape and the orientation of the orbit and the distance to the star, could also be deduced.

This analysis of several hundreds of exocomets in a single exo-planetary system is unique. It revealed the presence of two distinct families of exocomets: one family of old exocomets whose orbits are controlled by a massive planet [1], and another family, probably arising from the recent breakdown of one or a few bigger objects. Different families of comets also exist in the Solar System.

The exocomets of the first family have a variety of orbits and show a rather weak activity with low production rates of gas and dust. This suggests that these comets have exhausted their supplies of ices during their multiple passages close to Beta Pictoris [2].

The exocomets of the second family are much more active and are also on nearly identical orbits [3]. This suggests that the members of the second family all arise from the same origin: probably the breakdown of a larger object whose fragments are on an orbit grazing the star Beta Pictoris.

Flavien Kiefer concludes: “For the first time a statistical study has determined the physics and orbits for a large number of exocomets. This work provides a remarkable look at the mechanisms that were at work in the Solar System just after its formation 4.5 billion years ago.”


[1] A giant planet, Beta Pictoris b, has also been discovered in orbit at about a billion kilometres from the star and studied using high resolution images obtained with adaptive optics.

[2] Moreover, the orbits of these comets (eccentricity and orientation) are exactly as predicted for comets trapped inorbital resonance with a massive planet. The properties of the comets of the first family show that this planet in resonance must be at about 700 million kilometres from the star  — close to where the planet Beta Pictoris b was discovered.

[3] This makes them similar to the comets of the Kreutz family in the Solar System, or the fragments of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, which impacted Jupiter in July 1994.

Source: ESO

NASA Prepares its Science Fleet for Oct. 19 Mars Comet Encounter

NASA’s extensive fleet of science assets, particularly those orbiting and roving Mars, have front row seats to image and study a once-in-a-lifetime comet flyby on Sunday, Oct. 19.

Comet C/2013 A1, also known as comet Siding Spring, will pass within about 87,000 miles (139,500 kilometers) of the Red Planet — less than half the distance between Earth and our moon and less than one-tenth the distance of any known comet flyby of Earth.

Siding Spring’s nucleus will come closest to Mars around 2:27 p.m. EDT, hurtling at about 126,000 mph (56 kilometers per second). This proximity will provide an unprecedented opportunity for researchers to gather data on both the comet and its effect on the Martian atmosphere.

“This is a cosmic science gift that could potentially keep on giving, and the agency’s diverse science missions will be in full receive mode,” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “This particular comet has never before entered the inner solar system, so it will provide a fresh source of clues to our solar system’s earliest days.”

Siding Spring came from the Oort Cloud, a spherical region of space surrounding our sun and occupying space at a distance between 5,000 and 100,000 astronomical units.  It is a giant swarm of icy objects believed to be material left over from the formation of the solar system.

Siding Spring will be the first comet from the Oort Cloud to be studied up close by spacecraft, giving scientists an invaluable opportunity to learn more about the materials, including water and carbon compounds, that existed during the formation of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago.

Some of the best and most revealing images and science data will come from assets orbiting and roving the surface of Mars. In preparation for the comet flyby, NASA maneuvered its Mars Odyssey orbiter, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), and the newest member of the Mars fleet, Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN), in order to reduce the risk of impact with high-velocity dust particles coming off the comet.

The period of greatest risk to orbiting spacecraft will start about 90 minutes after the closest approach of the comet’s nucleus and will last about 20 minutes, when Mars will come closest to the center of the widening trail of dust flying from the comet’s nucleus.

“The hazard is not an impact of the comet nucleus itself, but the trail of debris coming from it. Using constraints provided by Earth-based observations, the modeling results indicate that the hazard is not as great as first anticipated. Mars will be right at the edge of the debris cloud, so it might encounter some of the particles — or it might not,” said Rich Zurek, chief scientist for the Mars Exploration Program at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

The atmosphere of Mars, though much thinner that Earth’s, will shield NASA Mars rovers Opportunity and Curiosity from comet dust, if any reaches the planet. Both rovers are scheduled to make observations of the comet.

NASA’s Mars orbiters will gather information before, during and after the flyby about the size, rotation and activity of the comet’s nucleus, the variability and gas composition of the coma around the nucleus, and the size and distribution of dust particles in the comet’s tail.

Observations of the Martian atmosphere are designed to check for possible meteor trails, changes in distribution of neutral and charged particles, and effects of the comet on air temperature and clouds. MAVEN will have a particularly good opportunity to study the comet, and how its tenuous atmosphere, or coma, interacts with Mars’ upper atmosphere.

Earth-based and space telescopes, including NASA’s iconic Hubble Space Telescope, also will be in position to observe the unique celestial object. The agency’s astrophysics space observatories — Kepler, Swift, Spitzer, Chandra — and the ground-based Infrared Telescope Facility on Mauna Kea, Hawaii — also will be tracking the event.

NASA’s asteroid hunter, the Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE), has been imaging, and will continue to image, the comet as part of its operations. And the agency’s two Heliophysics spacecraft, Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory (STEREO) and Solar and Heliophysics Observatory (SOHO), also will image the comet. The agency’s Balloon Observation Platform for Planetary Science (BOPPS), a sub-orbital balloon-carried telescope, already has provided observations of the comet in the lead-up to the close encounter with Mars.

Images and updates will be posted online before and after the comet flyby. Several pre-flyby images of Siding Spring, as well as information about the comet and NASA’s planned observations of the event, are available online at:


Source: NASA


The European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission will deploy its lander, Philae, to the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko on 12 November.

Philae’s landing site, currently known as Site J, is located on the smaller of the comet’s two ‘lobes’, with a backup site on the larger lobe. The sites were selected just six weeks after Rosetta arrived at the comet on 6 August, following its 10-year journey through the Solar System.

In that time, the Rosetta mission has been conducting an unprecedented scientific analysis of the comet, a remnant of the Solar System’s 4.6 billion-year history. The latest results from Rosetta will be presented on the occasion of the landing, during dedicated press briefings.

The main focus to date has been to survey 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko in order to prepare for the first ever attempt to soft-land on a comet.

Site J was chosen unanimously over four other candidate sites as the primary landing site because the majority of terrain within a square kilometre area has slopes of less than 30º relative to the local vertical and because there are relatively few large boulders. The area also receives sufficient daily illumination to recharge Philae and continue surface science operations beyond the initial 64-hour battery-powered phase.

Over the last two weeks, the flight dynamics and operations teams at ESA have been making a detailed analysis of flight trajectories and timings for Rosetta to deliver the lander at the earliest possible opportunity.

Two robust landing scenarios have been identified, one for the primary site and one for the backup. Both anticipate separation and landing on 12 November.

For the primary landing scenario, targeting Site J, Rosetta will release Philae at 08:35 GMT/09:35 CET at a distance of 22.5 km from the centre of the comet, landing about seven hours later. The one-way signal travel time between Rosetta and Earth on 12 November is 28 minutes 20 seconds, meaning that confirmation of the landing will arrive at Earth ground stations at around 16:00 GMT/17:00 CET.

If a decision is made to use the backup Site C, separation will occur at 13:04 GMT/14:04 CET, 12.5 km from the centre of the comet. Landing will occur about four hours later, with confirmation on Earth at around 17:30 GMT/18:30 CET. The timings are subject to uncertainties of several minutes.

Final confirmation of the primary landing site and its landing scenario will be made on 14 October after a formal Lander Operations Readiness Review, which will include the results of additional high-resolution analysis of the landing sites conducted in the meantime. Should the backup site be chosen at this stage, landing can still occur on 12 November.

A competition for the public to name the primary landing site will also be announced during the week of 14 October.

The Rosetta orbiter will continue to study the comet and its environment using its 11 science instruments as they orbit the Sun together. The comet is on an elliptical 6.5-year orbit that takes it from beyond Jupiter at its furthest point, to between the orbits of Mars and Earth at its closest to the Sun. Rosetta will accompany the comet for more than a year as they swing around the Sun and back to the outer Solar System again.

The analyses made by the Rosetta orbiter will be complemented by the in situ measurements performedby Philae’s 10 instruments.

An invitation to media with an outline of the programme for the 12 November event will be issued soon.

More about Rosetta

Rosetta is an ESA mission with contributions from its Member States and NASA. Rosetta’s Philae lander is provided by a consortium led by DLR, MPS, CNES, and ASI. Rosetta is the first mission in history to rendezvous with a comet. It is escorting the comet as they orbit the Sun, and will deploy a lander.

Comets are time capsules containing primitive material left over from the epoch when the Sun and its planets formed. By studying the gas, dust and structure of the nucleus and organic materials associated with the comet, via both remote and in situ observations, the Rosetta mission should become the key to unlocking the history and evolution of our Solar System, as well as answering questions regarding the origin of Earth’s water and perhaps even life.

Learn more about Rosetta at: http:// www.esa.int/rosetta

Source: ESA