Comet Elenin: Preview of a coming attraction

May 05, 2011
Trajectory of comet Elenin. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

(PhysOrg.com) -- You may have heard the news: Comet Elenin is coming to the inner-solar system this fall. Comet Elenin (also known by its astronomical name C/2010 X1), was first detected on Dec. 10, 2010 by Leonid Elenin, an observer in Lyubertsy, Russia, who made the discovery "remotely" using the ISON-NM observatory near Mayhill, New Mexico. At the time of the discovery, the comet was about 647 million kilometers (401 million miles) from Earth. Over the past four-and-a-half months, the comet has – as comets do – closed the distance to Earth's vicinity as it makes its way closer to perihelion (its closest point to the sun). As of May 4, Elenin's distance is about 274 million kilometers (170 million miles).

"That is what happens with these long-period comets that come in from way outside our planetary system," said Don Yeomans of NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "They make these long, majestic, speedy arcs through our solar system, and sometimes they put on a great show. But not Elenin. Right now that looks kind of wimpy."

How does a NASA scientist define cometary wimpiness?

"We're talking about how a comet looks as it safely flies past us," said Yeomans. "Some cometary visitors arriving from beyond the planetary region – like Hale-Bopp in 1997 -- have really lit up the night sky where you can see them easily with the naked eye as they safely transit the . But Elenin is trending toward the other end of the spectrum. You'll probably need a good pair of binoculars, clear skies, and a dark, secluded location to see it even on its brightest night."

Comet Elenin should be at its brightest shortly before the time of its closest approach to on Oct. 16 of this year. At its closest point, it will be 35 million kilometers (22 million miles) from us. Can this icy interloper influence us from where it is, or where it will be in the future? What about this celestial object inspiring some shifting of the tides or even tectonic plates here on Earth? There have been some incorrect Internet speculations that external forces could cause comet Elenin to come closer.

"Comet Elenin will not encounter any dark bodies that could perturb its orbit, nor will it influence us in any way here on Earth," said Yeomans. "It will get no closer to Earth than 35 million kilometers [about 22 million miles]."

"Comet Elenin will not only be far away, it is also on the small side for comets," said Yeomans. "And comets are not the most densely-packed objects out there. They usually have the density of something akin to loosely packed icy dirt.

"So you've got a modest-sized icy dirtball that is getting no closer than 35 million kilometers," said Yeomans. "It will have an immeasurably miniscule influence on our planet. By comparison, my subcompact automobile exerts a greater influence on the ocean's tides than comet Elenin ever will."

Yeomans did have one final thought on comet Elenin.

"This comet may not put on a great show. Just as certainly, it will not cause any disruptions here on Earth. But there is a cause to marvel," said Yeomans. "This intrepid little traveler will offer astronomers a chance to study a relatively young comet that came here from well beyond our solar system's planetary region. After a short while, it will be headed back out again, and we will not see or hear from Elenin for thousands of years. That's pretty cool."

NASA detects, tracks and characterizes asteroids and comets passing relatively close to Earth using both ground- and space-based telescopes. The Near-Earth Object Observations Program, commonly called "Spaceguard," discovers these objects, characterizes a subset of them, and predicts their paths to determine if any could be potentially hazardous to our planet.

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User comments : 16

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kevinrtrs
1.3 / 5 (14) May 05, 2011
"This intrepid little traveler will offer astronomers a chance to study a relatively young comet that came here from well beyond our solar system's planetary region

Raises some very tough questions:
1. Just where does the comet come from? There is no OORD cloud to supply it - that idea is just a myth. Nor can the Kuiper belt dish out such a body.
2. How come we can still see comets? Shouldn't these things have vanished long ago - after all they only last a few thousand years at most before disintegrating. So how would they have survived since the creation of the solar system supposedly 4.5 billion years ago? Or are we going to assume that comets suddenly appeared from somewhere in recent times, we just don't know where, i.e. we have no clue?
3. Is it reasonable to say that since comets are still around and they're not being replenished [ as all evidence currently seems to show], that perhaps the solar system is NOT 4.5 billion year old but is still relatively young?

axemaster
5 / 5 (8) May 05, 2011

3. Is it reasonable to say that since comets are still around and they're not being replenished [ as all evidence currently seems to show], that perhaps the solar system is NOT 4.5 billion year old but is still relatively young?


Uh... comets last a very long time indeed. You might want to read up or take an astronomy class.

And no, the solar system isn't very young at all. We have direct physical evidence in the form of billions of years old rocks from certain places on Earth, and even older rocks from the Moon.
Calenur
5 / 5 (6) May 05, 2011
You can be as relative as you like, the age of the solar system isn't anywhere near the vicinity of 6000 years old.
axemaster
5 / 5 (2) May 05, 2011
You can be as relative as you like, the age of the solar system isn't anywhere near the vicinity of 6000 years old.


Although I admit I did feel a bit of that vibe, to be fair, he never actually said that. I prefer to think he's just misinformed.

Innocent until proven guilty!
Quantum_Conundrum
1 / 5 (9) May 05, 2011
axemaster:

Given observations made by some of the recent space probes with close encounters with comets and asteroids, what Kevin said is actually correct.

Based on extrapolation of erosion rates from actual recent observations and flyby of comets and asteroids, there is no way short period comets could possibly survive more than a few thousand years.

Long period comets may last an order of magnitude more or so...
lengould100
5 / 5 (4) May 05, 2011
The only rational explanation I can come up with so far is that a belt of such objects are orbiting circular at a great distance and have suffered no errosion in 4.5 million years, and occasionally one gets perturbed by another into a tight parabolic orbit such as those we observe.
Donutz
5 / 5 (9) May 05, 2011

1. Just where does the comet come from? There is no OORD cloud to supply it - that idea is just a myth. Nor can the Kuiper belt dish out such a body.


@kevinrts

Please show some evidence supporting your claim that it's just a myth. Preferably from some individual or group that's actually qualified to make such statements.

While we're on the subject of evidence, I'm still waiting for you to produce something showing the existance of a magical sky fairy, or showing that said fairy had anything to do with producing your favorite book of fables.

You DO understand the concept of "credibility", don't you? As in, "you don't have any" ?
KBK
1 / 5 (14) May 05, 2011

3. Is it reasonable to say that since comets are still around and they're not being replenished [ as all evidence currently seems to show], that perhaps the solar system is NOT 4.5 billion year old but is still relatively young?


Uh... comets last a very long time indeed. You might want to read up or take an astronomy class.

And no, the solar system isn't very young at all. We have direct physical evidence in the form of billions of years old rocks from certain places on Earth, and even older rocks from the Moon.


We have particles 'emitted' from the sun right now - that make total mincemeat of any idea of carbon dating being accurate. Those 'particles' are changing what we thought was a stable decay rate.

To an interestingly large extent, the very idea of carbon dating was tossed out the window.

So no, you now have no accurate knowledge base from which to date those components.

Radioactive decay as a 'knowledge base' was scrapped, as 'systems' go.
BillFox
4.2 / 5 (5) May 05, 2011
Dang, did special ed get let out of school early? Kevinrts and qc already got people fallin for a troll.
Skultch
5 / 5 (5) May 05, 2011
Kevinrtrs,

Just where does your insanity come from?

KBK,

To an interestingly large extent, the very idea of your relevancy was tossed out the window.

Both,

Explain geologic layering, your great flood and actual recorded histories, or Hubble imagery. AND, provide ANY evidence that ANY religious book is in ANY WAY authoritative.

You won't because you can't. Next?
Skultch
5 / 5 (5) May 05, 2011
Based on extrapolation of erosion rates from actual recent observations and flyby of comets and asteroids, there is no way short period comets could possibly survive more than a few thousand years.


Is this your knew "gap" "evidence?" I don't have the time to research and refute this, but I have little doubt that someone else does. Regardless, lack of information for a theory does not add evidence to a contrary hypothesis. You sure think it does, though, don't you?
GSwift7
4.8 / 5 (6) May 05, 2011
By observing the path of a comet you can calculate where it came from and where it will end up when it returns to deep space. All of the long period comets we observe originat from points somewhere around 1 lightyear away from the sun. When a long period comet returns to deep space and reaches aphelion it will be moving very very very slowly and will remain in that part of its orbit for a very very long time unless its orbit was changed as it passed through the solar system. In that case, it can return in just a few thousand years as this one is predicted to do. Otherwise it is possible that a comet might not return to the sun for hundreds of thousands of years.
Donutz
5 / 5 (5) May 05, 2011
We have particles 'emitted' from the sun right now - that make total mincemeat of any idea of carbon dating being accurate. Those 'particles' are changing what we thought was a stable decay rate.

To an interestingly large extent, the very idea of carbon dating was tossed out the window.


Odd that no-one in the scientific community has heard about this. Must be secret work by all those highly-qualified creotard scientists.

Sarcasm aside, please provide references and/or credible scientific evidence/research to back up your wild and unsubstantiated claim. Until then, be prepared to be treated with all the respect and attention normally given to creotard lunacy.
dad61
5 / 5 (3) May 06, 2011
(A post with the links embedded needs manual inspection so the poriginal should appear soon.)

Images of the OORT Cloud are easily found with a google search, as are cometary erosion rates.

Most humans have difficulty grasping very large numbers (the diameter of the observable universe is 47 Billion light years. This does not mean that the Big Bang is wrong; space can, and does, expand faster than the speed of light. (This does not violate the laws of relativity.) The sun loses 4 tons per second. That might seem like a lot but the solar mass is on the order of 10^30 tons. If you know the math & science you can easily calculate that there will still be plenty of solar mass left in 15 billion years when it runs out of hydrogen and begins to fuse iron, the death knell for stars.

Take a few semesters of real math (calculus, differential equations) and science (physics, chemistry, and astronomy) before you start tossing out ridiculous assertions based on fairy tales.
dad61
5 / 5 (4) May 06, 2011
And, carbon dating is not used on igneous rocks as they contain no carbon! These are dated by measuring the mass of zircon that gets trapped in crystals. This element in this environment is unaffected by anything that the sun spews. It is the dating based on this and similar methods that have given us the more precise number of 4.72 billion years for the earth's age. Radio Carbon dating is primarily used in dating organic material - like coal (350 million years) that has been very effectively shielded underground against 'solar effects'.

If you're not equipped to process the information then keep on believing the crap number that was calculated by the archbishop Ussher of Orange. It was he, in the 17th century (1633) that used a non-historical record to calculate that the earth had been created on Oct 23, 4004 BCE. Now that's a reliable source, right? Foolishness.
mikebaum
not rated yet May 09, 2011
2. How come we can still see comets? Shouldn't these things have vanished long ago - after all they only last a few thousand years at most before disintegrating. So how would they have survived since the creation of the solar system supposedly 4.5 billion years ago? Or are we going to assume that comets suddenly appeared from somewhere in recent times, we just don't know where, i.e. we have no clue?


If the commet is from past the solar winds, wouldn't that eliminate more of this erosion? I read about that satelite Discover and that it was about to pass or did pass the extent of solar winds.