Comet Elenin's Distant Display
You may have heard the news: Comet Elenin is coming to the inner-solar system this fall.
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 inner-solar system. 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 Earth 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 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.”
More information about asteroids and near-Earth objects: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/asteroidwatch