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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

When worlds collide? Comet C/2013 A1 may hit Mars next year

2013 is promising (or threatening, depending on the stock one puts in omens) to be an incredible year for comets in our sky.  Depending on where you live there are two and maybe even three of those cosmic iceballs that may give us quite a show.  In a few short weeks Comet PANSTARRS will become visible to the naked eye in the Northern Hemisphere: perhaps more brilliant than any in more than a decade.  Comet Lemmon, found late last year, could turn into a moderately bright beauty for our friends south of the Equator (and certain gases in its tail are giving it a green color).

The big, big show is still to come.  This fall brings Comet ISON... and it could be one massive honker of a spectacle, folks!  If you remember Comet Hyakutake in the spring of 1996 and how enormous it was (I'll never forget how it looked during spring break at Elon College), ISON could possibly eclipse that.

And now there is Comet C/2013 A1 waiting in the wings: a visitor from the far-flung reaches of the Solar System that might... emphasis on might... have repercussions for places close to home.  Namely, Mars.

Comet C/2013 A1 (credit: Carl Hergenrother)
C/2013 A1 was first spotted by Robert McNaught in Australia early last month and since then astronomers have been scrambling to figure out where it came from and where it's going (the comet, not Australia).  More observational data is needed to crunch the numbers but as things stand now, C/2013 A1 (can't we just call it "Comet McNaught" like we would have in the old days?) harbors a possibility of colliding with Mars on or around October 19th, 2014.

Hit here for more about C/2013 A1 at Discovery.com's article.

Ever see those photos of Shoemaker-Levy 9 when it smashed into Jupiter in 1994?  It wasn't one complete body: it was a big chain of teenier fragments of the parent comet after it was broken apart by Jupiter's gravity.  The smaller chunks flew into Jupiter like pearls loose from a necklace and you could see the impacts from Earth with even a medium-sized telescope.

Now envision one solid mass of rock, dirt and ice the size of three or four big-a$$ mountains smooshed together, and that mass rushing toward Mars at about 126,000 miles per hour.  Toward the planet next door.

Depending on where you live and the sky conditions, if C/2013 A1 hits Mars, it might well be visible with the unaided eye.

Assuming that it hits Mars at all.  Or that Marvin doesn't get to it with his Illudium Q36 Exploding Space Modulator first...

Marvin the Martian, Bugs Bunny, Exploding Space Modulator
"Where's the 'KA-BOOM!'? There's supposed to be a C/2013 A1-shattering KA-BOOM!"