Many questions......where to start!
Image Credit: 4m AAT at Siding Spring. (c)P.Lake
Like - why is this such an A1 comet? Perhaps we won't go the humor angle, but as it is the first comet of the new year, discovered by Rob McNaught that's just what it is A1. Rob McNaught is a well known asteroid and comet hunter (Observatory Code E12) who is the front line of southern asteroid hunting with over 450 asteroid discoveries to his credit. Some people think its A1 because there is a very slim chance, it just might, do something that no one has ever seen before - hit Mars.
Comet discoveries are announced by the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams at the International Astronomy Union often after passing through the Minor Planet Center, and carry both the numerical designation and the name of the discoverer of the comet. Rob has so many discoveries he can pretty much name them what he likes.
C/2013 A1 (Siding Spring) is an apt name as it is where Rob does most of his work. The Siding Spring Observatory is a premier astronomy site managed by the Australian National University, and home of the Australian Astronomical Observatory (AAO). See my article on CosmoQuest about the recent fires that recently ripped through the area. It is also known as Mount Woorat in the Warrumbungle Ranges - Warrumbungle means "Crooked Mountains" in the local Aboriginal dialect.
Image Credit: The "crooked mountains" from the viewing platform behind the 4m Australian Astronomical Telescope. (c) P.Lake
There is a most interesting way to find your way to Siding Spring. In a master stroke of tourism marketing the local shire has constructed the world's longest Solar System Drive where no matter which direction you come from, you drive through a 1:38 million scale Solar System with great signage of each planet at strategic little stops along the highway. AND YES FOLKS.......Pluto is still a planet in this solar system, or at least deserving of a sign still at the little town of Bellata on the Newell Highway.
Talking of long distance travel..... NASA has a mission on its way to Mars, and of course, three rovers already there not to mention the other satellites in orbit. The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) Mission is going to Mars to study the possible reason's for the loss of Mars atmosphere. It takes off on November 18 2013 and will arrive at Mars on September 16th 2014, just weeks before Comet 2013 A1 (Siding Spring) has its incredibly close encounter with Mars. The latest astrometry being processed suggests the Coma could actually dust the surface of Mars if its current MOID (minimum distance) is proven to be correct and doesn't increase with the collection of more data. Its still early days in the data gathering!
The MAVEN Mission folks need to go an buy a lotto ticket - seriously! Whilst the NASA folks get the calculators out and evaluate the pros and cons of losing three rovers Vs Parking a satellite sent to study the volatile evolution of atmospheres inside the coma of a comet. Time will tell what they are going to be thinking about that!
Image Credit: Dr Ian Musgrave's [Astroblog] simulation in the Celestia Software package
On top of that, the chatter on the Minor Planet mailing lists is that if a (still very unlikely) impact were to occur, the energy release would be about 3 times as much as the impact of Shoemaker-Levy 9 fragment G that hit Jupiter on my birthday in 1994. Well placed in Australia, with the first impact just after dusk, I was one of the first in the world to see it live on my little 4.5 inch reflector with a maxed out barlow. This literally had a big impact on me and was one of two events that re-engaged me with my childhood love of astronomy. The cloud kicked up by SL-9 fragment G was bigger than Earth!
So one of my favourite spots on planet earth - Siding Spring is in the news again, hopefully we can all share some more excitement about the home of telescopes in the "Crooked Mountains".
PS: I'll grab some photos of C/2013 A1 (Siding Spring) from iTelescope.net's Observatory as soon as the weather clears.