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Astronomers track comet on path for Mars

Posted February 26, 2013

The meteor which lit up Russian skies and the close fly-by of asteroid 2012 A14 left many wondering what might happen if a large object hit Earth. There is a chance that a newly discovered comet with Mars as our stunt double might provide an answer next year. Based on that preliminary tracking data, Comet 2013-A1 is expected to come very close to Mars in late October 2014.

Astronomer Robert McNaught at the Siding Spring Observatory in New South Wales, Australia, discovered Comet 2013-A1 early last month. Astronomers in Japan, Spain, Chile, Argentina and Arizona later confirmed the discovery and have been tracking the comet since.

Calculations show it will likely pass about 63,000 miles from the surface of Mars. But with so little tracking data available, the margin of error is equal to about 175 times the diameter of Mars. This puts the comet passing somewhere between a comfortable 650,000 miles from the planet’s surface and a nearly head-on impact.

This margin of error will improve over the coming months as professional and amateur astronomers continue to track its path.


Tony Rice is a volunteer in the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador program and software engineer at Cisco Systems. You can follow him on twitter @rtphokie.

4 Comments

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  • Tony Rice Feb 27, 6:23 p.m.

    Good question corncop, it's pretty big at least a couple of km across and some estimates have it at 50km. Not enough data to make an accurate guess though. I wouldn't worry about throwing Mars' orbit off even at 1/10th Earth's mass, Mars is massive enough that a near miss or even a direct hit isn't going to change its orbit.

  • corncop Feb 27, 10:40 a.m.

    Unlikely as it may seem it is a bit premature for the chicken little routine! However, the guestimations of impact may not. How big or rather what is the mass of the comet and what might the collision of those to masses create? Could it shift Mars orbit (even slightly)? And what might the implications be for us lowly humans here on our "secure" planet Earth? Far-fetched? Maybe. But practical!

  • Tony Rice Feb 26, 5:33 p.m.

    Other news agencies, including some prominent ones, are choosing to focus on what the impact would be like, this chooses to focus on how unlikely the impact is at this point. The part I find most interesting is how an object, found just recently, is threatening a terrestrial planet. It's a big solar system but still a bit of a shooting gallery.

  • Chapel Hill Conservative Feb 26, 1:39 p.m.

    So there's a rock zipping through space on a yet to be determined path that has what appears to be an extremely remote "chance" of actually hitting Mars. Got it...