Mars: Cosmic Bullseye?
March 1, 2013 9:48 AM   Subscribe

Will Mars be rocked by a massive comet in 2014? Maybe a little. Maybe a lot. A comet will definitely pass close to the Red Planet on October 19, 2014.

From the first link: . . . It’s entirely possible, even likely, Mars will pass right through this cloud of material. And the closer the comet gets, the more likely it is Mars will get pelted by the debris set loose from the nucleus itself. . . . If the nucleus does hit the planet, well. . . . Doing a rough calculation, I get an explosive yield of roughly one billion megatons: That’s a million billion tons of TNT exploding. Or, if you prefer, an explosion about 25 million times larger than the largest nuclear weapon ever tested on Earth. . . The crater left behind would be hundreds of kilometers across, and be the largest impact Mars has seen in a long, long time. Mind you, once again, there is no guarantee this comet will hit Mars.
posted by IvoShandor (41 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
Man, it seems like space is getting busy lately. The meteor skimming the atmosphere and coming back last year, the two comets this year, the two meteors that just happened and now this. Confirmation bias? Can we just see more of what's happening?
posted by cmoj at 10:07 AM on March 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


So it was less than 20 years ago that Jupiter got hit by a comet. Now Mars could.

Isn't it time to establish off-world colonies?
posted by DU at 10:09 AM on March 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


Martians, don't flock to your local theater to see Melancholia because it will freak you the fuck out
posted by angrycat at 10:10 AM on March 1, 2013 [5 favorites]


Just enough time to get a satellite with an HD camera out there to film it for my entertainment.
posted by anewnadir at 10:13 AM on March 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


If life exists on Mars, this will be our opportunity to meet the Martian Bruce Willis, so there is that.

It's interesting that not only is this comet on a trajectory to bring it close, it's packing a huge energy punch due to its orbit and direction.
posted by maxwelton at 10:13 AM on March 1, 2013


Can we just see more of what's happening?

Pretty much, yeah. For one thing, we are more likely to know when something's coming, prompting a lot of scaremongering "Is the Earth doomed?" headlines; when we're not, we're still pretty likely to catch it on enough dashboard cameras that it can fill a bunch of time on 24-hour news channels.
posted by Sys Rq at 10:16 AM on March 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Confirmation bias? Can we just see more of what's happening?

Most likely a LOT more from Column B than Column A. A comet is more likely to be a "one time in a long time thing" event, since many comets from the Oort cloud have very long, highly elliptical orbits.

However, from a "we're seeing more of what's happening" perspective we are DEFINITELY seeing more: Consider this video showing asteroid discoveries from 1980 to 2011.
posted by chimaera at 10:17 AM on March 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Thanks to all the insurance fraud on Mars, the dash cams on all the rovers will catch the impact on video.
posted by bondcliff at 10:29 AM on March 1, 2013


By "highly elliptical" I should've said "highly eccentric." But in this case, looks like the comet on a hyperbolic trajectory, which basically means this is its one trip past the sun, and then off in to interstellar space. Unless it happens to hit something, like Mars. (Which seems very unlikely but comets are more likely to do strange things than asteroids -- it could break up, or have a geyser/jet or something else that nudges it closer to, or further from, Mars.)
posted by chimaera at 10:30 AM on March 1, 2013


I guess this means that we'll have to wait till 2015 to build that colony.
posted by item at 10:30 AM on March 1, 2013


President God orders cometary drone-attack on Mars

Godhouse Spokes-angel Gabriel said: "President God will do everything in his power to keep Heaven safe from the Martian threat". When asked why God, an infinitely powerful being who created the universe, was lashing out against a backward planet like Mars, Gabriel answered: "Because fuck you, that's why."

Earth President Barack Obama was unavilable for satire, but sent a drone to pass on his apologies to people and then kill them.

"If God attacks Mars, there will be the mother of all Astronomy Pictures of the Day," said NASA, before sending a robotic drone to attack Pluto.

Meanwhile, President of Vacuous Commentary "quidnunc kid" has send his robotic self to the pub to attack a drink. "The threat of my sobriety must be quenched, and a packet of crisps, please," said the irrelevant moron. Good weekend, everyone.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 10:33 AM on March 1, 2013 [7 favorites]


There's this chaotic alignment part of me that can't wait to see hi-def imagery of the collision if it happens.
posted by Burhanistan at 10:51 AM on March 1, 2013


There's this chaotic alignment part of me that can't wait to see hi-def imagery of the collision if it happens.

I'll be buying an expensive telescope if a direct nucleus hit is confirmed. We can have a space party at my house. There will be scotch. And beer.
posted by IvoShandor at 10:55 AM on March 1, 2013 [5 favorites]


I was hoping to see this show up here, so nice job IvoShandor. On the one hand, yeah, I want to see the equivalent of a million billion tons of TNT go off. However, the investment that we've put into the Mars rovers and orbiting probes is so great that I wouldn't want them to be destroyed. Luckily, it's not up to me or anyone else to choose what happens, so we'll just have to wait and see.
posted by A Bad Catholic at 11:05 AM on March 1, 2013


I imagine an impact that big will send mars rocks hurtling all over the solar system, including towards earth.
posted by empath at 11:26 AM on March 1, 2013


It would depend on the location of the impact and the direction and angle of the comet, surely?
posted by Chrysostom at 11:38 AM on March 1, 2013


My main man Neil deGrasse Tyson proposed an awesome solution for dealing with errant asteroids such as might result from a catastrophic collision with Mars.
posted by Burhanistan at 11:46 AM on March 1, 2013


Maybe it'll become a third moon of Mars .... though I can't picture the physics behind that. I note only that I've only seen a couple of "new moon" sci fi stories, of which The Fifth Element is the most memorable.
posted by tilde at 11:51 AM on March 1, 2013


Get them orbiting telescopes pointed the right way. I wanna watch.

Do we have time to send a spacecraft out to the comet, to, you know, nudge it a bit to make sure it hits Mars? They should try to get it to land in Valles Marineris... to make a lake. See, that way the colonist will have someplace to go fishing when they arrive. They could bring their own fish, I guess. And some worms. Okay, I see how this is going to be. Never mind that part. Just get them telescopes pointed the right way.
posted by mule98J at 11:53 AM on March 1, 2013


Also, if this was to hit Earth, what are we talking about in terms of damage?
posted by A Bad Catholic at 11:56 AM on March 1, 2013


Also, if this was to hit Earth, what are we talking about in terms of damage?

I'm no physicist, but I'm pretty sure the damage from a direct hit would be the total and complete destruction of everything.

Maybe I'm wrong, tell me I'm wrong
posted by IvoShandor at 12:21 PM on March 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


Well we could always say we almost made it to the stars.
posted by CautionToTheWind at 12:26 PM on March 1, 2013


Hopefully the period of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter can be altered such that it has a good view for as long as possible and is shielded by a moon or the planet when it needs to be. If it can hold together, it should be able to take some incredible pictures, even if it's just a near-miss.
posted by feloniousmonk at 12:53 PM on March 1, 2013


If it did hit, I wonder if we would see liquid water run on the surface.
posted by feloniousmonk at 12:55 PM on March 1, 2013


I'm hoping a giant Martian underground worm would rear up at the last moment and either eat the comet or smack it into space.
posted by Burhanistan at 12:58 PM on March 1, 2013


You can toy around with this impact simulator. Even at the smaller estimated size of the comet nucleus, at 500 kms away from the impact site, it was estimated that the air blast would level multi-story buildings. At the larger nucleus size, the impact crater itself would exceed 500 kms in radius.
posted by Chrysostom at 12:58 PM on March 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Maybe it'll become a third moon of Mars ....

WAY too much energy. The little beastie is moving about 55km per second ... 35 miles PER SECOND ... relative to Mars. Deimos and Phobos have orbital velocities of 1 or 2 km per second. So no, it'll whip on by in no time. Or make a Really Ginormous hole.
posted by Twang at 2:44 PM on March 1, 2013


About ten years ago, I wrote a sci-fi backstory to an RPG: In 1963, a moderately-sized asteroid struck Connecticut, delivering about 100MT of destruction. JFK assumed it was a Soviet first strike with the new 'Tsar Bomba' and ordered an all-out retaliation. Analysis of radar tapes discovered the truth just barely in time to avert total global thermonuclear war. The United States, reeling from its near-destruction, dusted off Project Orion and started the process of colonizing Mars. Virtually all other national projects were abandoned, including the Vietnam War, Universal Social Security, and more. By the late 60s, the first scout ship had taken a thousand scientists there, and through the mid 70s and 80s, a new ship carrying thousands of colonists was launched, each bigger than the last.

During the 1984 launch window, the US launched its biggest ship yet, and then in a surprise move, the USSR launched an even bigger one a few days later.

The RPG was set on a Mars with tens of thousands of colonists, but ~1975 technology, in a few cities that were a few hundred miles apart, with this new, scary Commie city about a thousand miles away.

Having read about this comet, I can't help but think just how boned my colonists would be next year if it hit.
posted by Hatashran at 4:02 PM on March 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


Sigh. More NASA lies. When will this clown show ever end? :/
posted by GrooveJedi at 4:03 PM on March 1, 2013


How's that, GrooveJedi?
posted by A Bad Catholic at 4:43 PM on March 1, 2013


The Mythbusters need to build a rig to steer this comet into Mars. Imagine the ratings that come with that kind of lead, Tonight Adam and Jamie blow up the Red Planet.
posted by humanfont at 7:48 PM on March 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


IvoShandor: Also, if this was to hit Earth, what are we talking about in terms of damage?

I'm no physicist, but I'm pretty sure the damage from a direct hit would be the total and complete destruction of everything.

Maybe I'm wrong, tell me I'm wrong


I ran the impact simulator a few times with the high and low estimated mass and the impact speed at which it would hit Mars. Basically, it varies from an extinction-level event significantly worse than the one that killed off the dinosaurs, to not quite as bad as that but still something that would level a small continent and cause a nuclear winter effect. The reason for the uncertainty is the uncertainty in the comet's mass.

So, if it hit the Earth, it varies from potentially causing the worst mass extinction ever to hit the planet to causing a relatively minor one but still probably driving humans extinct and certainly erasing civilization at the least.
posted by Mitrovarr at 8:57 PM on March 1, 2013


So yes, this is a really big deal if it hits Mars. You'd definitely be able to see the impact from Earth. Hell, the impact would probably be naked-eye visible as a flash if it hit the visible side, and the change in brightness due to modification of the atmosphere would be visible if not. The crater left behind would be something on the scale of Olympus freaking mons, probably visible to amateurs with decent equipment and definitely visible to skilled amateur astrophotographers.

The scale of this almost guarantees it will not hit, because it's a billion-year sort of event and the probability against one of those happening during human existence is simply too low to be plausible.
posted by Mitrovarr at 9:03 PM on March 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


The comet is shaped like a peanut.

If it hits Mars, we should really think about renaming the planet Snickers.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:06 PM on March 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


In other news: Mars Rover Curiosity Has First Big Malfunction - One of rover's two onboard computers became corrupted, delaying scientific operations for at least a week.
posted by homunculus at 9:08 PM on March 1, 2013


If its not going to hit, could we arrange some sort of reverse-messiah-rocket scenario on Mars?
posted by blue_beetle at 4:26 AM on March 2, 2013


I understand how that logic is valid, Mitrovarr, but at the same time I can't help be reminded of the joke about the economist who didn't pick up a $20 bill off the ground, because if it really existed, someone would have picked it up already.
posted by Chrysostom at 7:33 PM on March 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


But in this case, looks like the comet on a hyperbolic trajectory, which basically means this is its one trip past the sun, and then off in to interstellar space. Unless it happens to hit something, like Mars.

Has anyone thought to plot the trajectory back to see if they can determine where it came from? Scientific curiosity for sure, but also just to make sure that no one is throwing rocks at us.
posted by CosmicRayCharles at 10:10 AM on March 3, 2013


Kuiper belt or Oort Cloud, natch.
posted by Burhanistan at 10:35 AM on March 3, 2013


Kuiper belt or Oort Cloud, natch.

It could be an interstellar comet:

"At present, an interstellar comet can only be detected if it passes through our solar system, and could be distinguished from an Oort cloud comet by its strongly hyperbolic trajectory (indicating that it is not gravitationally bound to the Sun)."

This comet is on a hyperbolic trajectory and is moving in a retrograde direction, so there is a definite possibility of an interstellar origin.
posted by CosmicRayCharles at 11:27 AM on March 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


NASA Rover Finds Conditions Once Suited for Ancient Life on Mars
posted by homunculus at 7:24 PM on March 12, 2013


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