Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Comet C/2013 A1 (Siding Spring)

B plane plot - Red circle is Mars, green star is most likely trajectory (miss by 55000km), black ellipses are 1,2,3 sigma direct from JPL Horizons, blue dots are 3,892 Monte Carlo samples

What's in a name?

First off, the name is C/2013 A1, which means that it is a C/ non-periodic comet (this is the first recorded observation of the object) 2013 A discovered in the first half of January 2013, 1 first comet discovered in that part of the month. Siding Spring is parenthetical and not part of the name, just the name of the observatory that discovered it, but since it's easier to remember than a number, we will probably end up hearing a lot about comet Siding Spring.

Why do we care?

The comet is on a very close-approach to Mars. We care about Mars because we care about the spacecraft present in orbit and on its surface. Even more interestingly, the 1-sigma uncertainty ellipse currently includes Mars. There is about a 1 in 1000 chance of impact.

What are its effects likely to be?

  1. If it hits Mars, it will almost certainly throw enough junk into low Mars space to kill all the spacecraft in orbit. It is also likely to kill any rover which happens to be within several hundred kilometers.
  2. If it misses, well it's a comet visible from 7+ AU out. It's going to be a big'un. All the usual stuff that applies to comets will apply here. It is likely that Mars (and therefore all the satellites) will pass through the coma, and be subjected to a pretty good sandblasting. We will need to review our experience with the Halley armada, and consider that the closer-passing objects were armored.
  3. If we decide that the comet is a hazard to spacecraft and other mechanical things, we have to decide what to do with Maven. Do we hold it until the next window? Is it worth firing to get a month's worth of data?


I have been watching this for the past week, and while refined orbits have been produced, the nominal miss distance has been shrinking, and impact has not been excluded yet. The last solution I have seen gives a 0.016% chance of impact.

In particular, Horizons says that the 3-sigma uncertainty ellipse has a semi-major axis of 88000km, a semi-minor axis of 22000km, and that the smallest uncertainty ellipse which touches Mars has a value of 0.98 sigmas. Further, the ellipse is rotated 24.20deg from the line between closest approach. I ran all this through an IDL script and got the plot at the top of this article.

I believe that the documentation on Horizons is wrong, and that what is documented as the 3-sigma uncertainty ellipse major and minor is really the 1-sigma ellipse. With this change, the Monte Carlo samples (see below) match the error ellipses well. Otherwise, I can't reconcile the 3-sigma ellipse touching Mars with the reported Nsigma of 0.98.

A new and powerful tool

The Minor Planet Center collects observations, and in principle you can fit those observations yourself, if your name is Carl Friedrich Gauss. Or if you get Find_orb from Project Pluto. I'm still learning it myself and playing with it, but it has the ability to import observations in MPC format. The program is under active development, and appears to have accreted features as interesting real-world events have happened. For our purpose, the two best features are auto-fit and Monte Carlo. The latter is done in an especially clever way. The program creates a cloud of objects, but it doesn't require a covariance matrix. Instead, it adds a bit of noise to each observation in RA and Dec, then fits an orbit to those new observations and creates an object.

So, I got the observations for C/2013 A1 and dropped them in. After 5015 Monte Carlo samples, 7 of them hit Mars, for an impact probability of 0.14%, quite in line with the JPL Horizons number, but produced directly and solely from the observations. As seen above, they almost perfectly fit the JPL Horizons ellipses.

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