by Alex Autin

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A Tale Of Two Comets

Siding Spring and Halley!

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Is the bright fuzzy object in this image from NASA’s kick-ass-and-take-names Opportunity rover actually Comet Siding Spring (C/2013 A1)? If so, it would be the first time EVER us humans have captured an image of a comet taken from another world. And that would be pretty damn cool! The image was taken on Sol 3817, Oct 19, and of the 3 raw images from Oppy posted today on the JPL site, 2 show a promising and comet-ish looking fuzzy object in the Mars night time skies. Earlier images taken on Sol 3212 show no fuzzy object, soooo….could be! (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NASA’s Curiosity Rover also sent back raw images from its Navcam, which can be seen here, but honestly they’re a might too noisy for me to make any sense of. Hopefully once the noise is removed we’ll have a much better view.

Meanwhile, all 3 of NASA’s Mars orbiters (Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and MAVEN), after taking cover behind the planet, have all come out of hiding, confirmed a healthy status and are reporting data from the comet flyby.

mars20141006b-fullAn artist’s concept of NASA’s Mars orbiters shamelessly hiding strategically lining up behind the Red Planet, shielding themselves from comet dust as Siding Spring rips by on Oct 19. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

If all this comet buzz has you in the mood to do some comety viewing yourself, well…you’re in luck, kinda/sorta! And you don’t have to go to Mars to do so!

It’s Orionid meteor shower time as Earth orbits through an area of space littered with debris from that big-time famous comet – Halley! WOOHOO!! Normally this shower produces 25 or so meteors per hour as bits of comet dust hit the Earth’s atmosphere.

The best time for viewing meteors (aka shooting ‘stars’) will be in those wonderful wee hours before sunrise on tomorrow (Tues, Oct 21) cus that’s when Earth will encounter the densest part of Halley’s debris stream. (And really, in my opinion, those hours – from 3am till dawn – are the best star gazing hours ever. I’m almost always up and out at that time…almost always.) But regardless of your time zone, or whether you like staying up late or waking early, midnight to dawn, with clear dark skies and your viewing should rock. No telescope is needed to enjoy the show, and the slim waning crescent Moon will be your friend!

That’s all well and good, but where do I look?

Annual meteor showers are named for the point in the sky from which they appear to radiate. Because meteor shower particles all travel in parallel paths, at the same velocity, they all appear to an observer on the ground to radiate away from a single point in the sky. In the case of the Orionids, that radiant point is in the direction of the constellation Orion. (Near Betelgeuse!)

And while the Orionids aren’t as fancy as other better known meteor showers, this wintery show will also feature some of the prettiest stars in the night sky such as Dog Star Sirius, bright winter constellations Gemini and Taurus, and even Jupiter will be showing off high in the sky before dawn! But don’t take my word for it – check out this skymap from the folks at NASA, who, unlike me, actually know what they’re talking about!

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

Cooke also suggests, “Be prepared for speed. Meteoroids from Halley’s Comet strike Earth’s atmosphere traveling 148,000 mph. Only the November Leonids are faster.”

This is WAY cool because, according to the article at NASA Science, “… fast meteors have a tendency to explode. Occasionally, Orionid fireballs will leave incandescent streams of debris in their wake that linger for minutes. Such filaments of “meteor smoke” twisted by upper atmospheric winds into convoluted shapes can be even prettier than the meteors themselves”

Hell, yes!

Skymap Credit: Dr Tony Phillips/NASA

Images Of The Week (W42-14)

Bluer Than You

Don’t you hate running into someone wearing the exact same sweater as you? The above image of a pair of  gorgeous Eupholus Magnificus beetles, members of the Curculionidae family was tweeted on Oct 14 by Cambridge University Zoology PhD student Jolle Wolter Jolles. For more fantastic images like this check out @mudfooted on twitter, or follow his blog at Mudfooted.com. Image Credit: Jolle Jolles via twitter

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Not Mount Doom, Nor The Eye Of Sauron

Mount-Taranaki

The above satellite image, posted Oct 13 on Daily Overview, features Mount Taranaki located on New Zealand’s North Island. Mount Taranaki is not to be confused with Mount Doom which, despite Tolkien’s insistence of it being located in the northwest of the Black Land of Mordor, is actually also located on New Zealand’s North Island somewhere around stratovolcano Mount Ngauruhoe, or at least according to Peter Jackson. It also should not be confused with Doom Mons, located on Saturn’s moon, Titan, and named after Mount Doom. It would be ok, however, to confuse Mount Taranaki with Mount Fuji because, well, it kinda looks like Fuji and it, as opposed to Fuji, was used as the backdrop in The Last Samurai. The Last Samurai, however, should NEVER be confused with Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, which WAS filmed on Mount Fuji, because Kurosawa liked the fog, and which is one of the BEST samurai films ever made …especially if compared to the complete lameness that was The Last Samurai. Wow, digression! (This is kinda what it’s like to have coffee with me.) Where was I? Oh, yep, Mount Taranaki, aka Mount Egmont, also an active, but quiescent, stratovolcano and pictured above. The very cool image illustrates a sharp change in vegetation between the national forest which encircles the volcano and the surrounding farms and dairy pastures. Cool, very, but a different kind of cool than Mount Doom, or a Kurosawa samurai film. Image Credit: Daily Overview

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Massive Low…and Gonzalo…

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The above wind speed map, from October 14, shows Hurricane Gonzalo, the most powerful Atlantic hurricane in 4 years, as it was when located northwest of the Virgin Islands in the Caribbean.  At that time Gonzalo was intensifying from a Category 3 hurricane (wind speeds of 111 – 129 mph) to a Category 4 (wind speeds of 130 – 156 mph). Though Gonzalo was packing some very intense winds at the time, it is completely dwarfed by a monster storm in the north Atlantic. WOW!! If you find wind speeds interesting, and you like gorgeous animated streamlines on a zoomable and interactive world map…check out earth.nullschool.net! Using data from the US National Weather Service’s Global Forecast System, the map updates every 3 hours showing worldwide weather patterns. Warning: Huge amounts of time will be lost! Image Credit: earth.nullschool.net

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Incoming!! Take Cover!!

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The above images shows comet C/2013 A1, aka Siding Spring, before and after filtering as captured by Wide Field Camera 3 on the Hubble Space Telescope. On tomorrow, Oct. 19, Siding Spring will pass within about 87,000 miles of Mars, which is less than half the distance between Earth and our Moon (less than HALF!). This is also less than one-tenth the distance of any comet flyby of Earth…that we know of. Siding Spring’s nucleus will come closest to Mars around 11.27 am PDT, shedding material as it streaks by at about 126,000 mph. Whoa! But what about that cool-ass fleet of 5 spacecraft we have currently orbiting Mars from NASA, ESA, and ISRO? The plan is Duck and Cover! In an effort to avoid bombardment, and possible damage, by high-velocity grains of comet dust the Armada from Earth will hide behind the Red Planet on Sunday morning. (But ‘hide’ like in a precautionary way, not like, you know, in a cowardly way.) However, right before and right after running away like little girls, the entire fleet will be busy gathering data on the comet as well measuring gas and dust interaction with the Martian atmosphere. Meanwhile, surface-bound rovers Curiosity and Opportunity, not having an entire planet to hide behind, were instructed to hunker down and take it like a robot. No, wait, what I meant to say is that the Martian atmosphere should shield Curiosity and Oppy from any comet dust and both are expected at work throughout the entire event making all kinds of cool observations.  Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and J.-Y. Li (Planetary Science Institute)

Have a great weekend!! :)

Your Life On Earth

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Have you ever wondered how far you’ve traveled through space in your lifetime? Or how many times your heart has beaten compared to that of a blue whale, or a hummingbird? Or maybe you’d like to know how many cups of coffee, or pints on beer, were available per person when you were born as opposed to currently. If so, and if you have a few minutes on your hands, there’s an interactive infographic by BBC Earth, Your Life On Earth, which allows you to explore how the planet has changed in your lifetime.

Just fill in a handful of fields, such as date of birth, gender, height, and hit ‘go’. The infographic does the calculations for you. Want to know the amount sea levels have risen in your lifetime? Or the amount the tectonic plates have moved? What about how much the population has increased since you were born? It’s all there!

Also, be sure to check out the drop-down menus to learn things such as your Space Age – what would be your age, and when would your next birthday be, in Earth days, if you were on Mercury, or Mars, or Neptune. My next birthday on Mars would be in 135 Earth days. Perhaps you’d like to know how large of a family a house fly of your age would have generated compared to a rabbit, or a killer whale. Hint: The house fly kills it, no contest.

Want to know what creatures were discovered during your lifetime such as the Titi monkey? Or what mammal, bird, fish, and plant species have become endangered? I’m not at all ok with there being virtually no Goliath Groupers left in the world. But I am happy to know that the Mountain Gorilla was saved from extinction during my lifetime.

So, what are you waiting for? Go check it out here! Then come back and let me know how you, the planet, and the species we share the world with have changed during your lifetime!

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