Monday, May 26, 2014

Astro Agony/Ecstacy

Yesterday's much-hyped Camelopardalids meteor shower was a bust. Frickin' Camelopardalids! We've had so many post-hype disappointments with comets and meteors lately.

But astronomy buffs will be cheered up immeasurably when the Europeans land a spaceship called Rosetta on a speeding comet this November! The approaching spacecraft has already imaged the comet's sprouting coma (precursor to its tail), something I believe we've never seen before.

To land on a comet is an almost impossible task because the thing's speeding at 83,000 mph, and the landing must be gentle, so we need to creep up on it at the exact right speed and trajectory (the lander will immediately drive harpoons into the snowy dustball to keep from bouncing back off). The only way to accomplish this is via an insane trick shot wherein Rosetta's been bounced not once, not twice, but three separate times off of Earth's gravity field, and then careened past Mars for the finishing touch. Having launched way back in 2004, it's been a ten year ordeal for a rendezvous that will ultimately take place closer to Earth than Jupiter (for comparison, New Horizons took just over a year to reach Jupiter).

Check out this visualization to see the insanely complex and indirect route Rosetta's been taking. It makes the Curiosity landing seem simple by comparison!

Rosetta will ride the comet as it circles around the sun and shoots back out of the solar system. Dr. Strangelove comes to life!

Speaking of meteors and spaceships, I love this time lapse meteor photo from the Astronomy Picture of the Day site (shot by Xiang Zhan of Beijing Planetarium). It's hard to imagine a more visceral real-life indication that we're living on a rock that's hurtling through space!

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