by SPACE Staff
11 August 201
Comet Elenin as seen
by NASA's STEREO spacecraft on Aug. 6, 2011.
A NASA spacecraft aimed at the sun
shifted its unblinking gaze to an approaching comet last week to
snap a new photo of the icy object as it flew by.
The image shows the
comet Elenin as it passed within 4.3 million
miles (7 million kilometers) of one of NASA's twin Stereo
sun-watching spacecraft during a series of deep space photo sessions
that began on August 1.
NASA rolled the
Stereo-B satellite to
give its instruments a view of the comet flyby, officials said.
From Stereo's observations, the fuzzy comet Elenin can be seen
streaking across a small portion of the sky. The comet was seen by
Stereo's HI-2 telescope between August 1 to 5, and by the higher
resolution HI-1 telescope between August 6 to 12, NASA officials
Stereo mission scientists planned to
take photos for one-hour every day through August 12.
"From August 15 onward, the comet
enters the HI-1 telescope's nominal field of view, at which time
we should enjoy continuous viewing of the comet," NASA
researchers explained in an update posted to the Stereo mission
Comet Elenin is expected to become
brighter over the next few days, and could be detectable using
Stereo's coronagraph instrument between August 20 and September 1,
NASA officials said.
Mission managers are then expecting the
comet to become visible to another sun-watching spacecraft - NASA's
Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) - for six days,
beginning on September 23.
Comet Elenin was discovered in December by Russian astronomer
Leonid Elenin, who spotted the icy wanderer using the
International Scientific Optical Network's robotic observatory near
Mayhill, New Mexico.
Viewed from Earth, comet Elenin presently appears as a faint smudge
of light in deep sky exposures. By late August the comet could be
visible to the naked eye as a dim "fuzzy
star" with a tail.
Comet Elenin will fly through the inner solar system in October 2011
and be 22 million miles (35 million kilometers) away at its closest
approach to our planet, NASA scientists have said. The comet is not
expected to be particularly dazzling, but the flyby may be a good
chance to study a relatively young comet from the outer solar
Some doomsday theorists have pinned the Nibiru rogue planet hypothesis on
the small comet.
Conspiracy theorists say a planet, known as
Nibiru, will swing in
from the outskirts of our solar system and collide with Earth and
wipe out humanity in
2012. Since no rogue planet has
been found in the outer solar system, some people have argued that
comet Elenin will be the true culprit in the Nibiru-Earth collision.
NASA has dismissed the notion that comet Elenin is anything other
than a dim, wimpy comet. It poses no threat to Earth, making its
closest pass at a distance roughly 100 times farther than the
distance from Earth to the moon.
NASA's identical twin Stereo spacecraft were launched in October
2006. They are offset from one another, one flying ahead of the
Earth and the other behind.
The name "Stereo" is short for Solar
Terrestrial Relations Observatory.