In the closing weeks of March, astronomers worldwide were surprised to see a sudden increase in brightness for comet C/2013 A1 (Siding Spring). At the same time, try as they might, it was not possible to detect even the remnant of a nucleus in the rapidly expanding cloud of dust that had replace the previously still very small tail.
Is this a comet breaking apart? Credit: NASA, ESA, H. Weaver (APL/JHU), M. Mutchler and Z. Levay (STScI)
At the same time, the control team in Baikonistan reported that contact was lost with the Uranus-bound international spacecraft Behemoth, the first truly global attempt to explore our Solar System.
Aptly named, this spacecraft was launched three years ago, and – with a mass over 100 tons – is easily the largest (not to mention most expensive) space probe ever built. One moment it was still transmitting, the next moment it wasn't.
All efforts to re-establish contact with Behemoth have, alas, turned out to be fruitless. However, astronomers and engineers mapping the paths in space of the vessel and comet Siding Spring believe the trajectories may have intersected at a fateful point still far beyond Mars orbit. We may never know – but the laws of probabilities lead us to conclude that Siding Spring's sudden brightening and the equally sudden silence of Behemoth are not unrelated.
However, every cloud has a silver lining, as the saying goes. Astronomers have informed the Mars Express control team that due to the apparent disintegration of comet C/2013 A1 (Siding Spring), its potentially dramatic encounter with Mars on 19 October 2014 is therefore called off and all preparations for the event can cease, as no preventive measures will now be required. In fact, the MEX team have all headed off to the pub for a jolly celebration...
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