Crazy cosmic coincidence

Me appearing on BBC Breakfast and Newround on Friday 16th February talking about the 2012DA14 asteroid flyby
Me appearing on BBC Breakfast and Newround on Friday 16th February talking about the 2012DA14 asteroid flyby

Well it’s been quite a week for space science.  As reported in my blog last week we were awaiting on Earth for the very close flyby of asteroid 2012DA14. I was filmed for BBC News here in the UK about this (see below for links). However, on the very same day this flyby was due to occur, another asteroid caused havoc in Russia, and it was totally unrelated to 2012DA14. The Russian meteorite that resulted from this particular asteroid hitting the Earth is now unofficially named the Chebarkul meteorite and so far there are reports that over 50 fragments of the exploded asteroid have been collected, although there may be more to come from the bottom of an ice-covered lake. The asteroid actually exploded into small pieces as it was heated during atmospheric entry, it may have been travelling at speeds of around 20km/s and reports show it created a sonic boom during the explosion that actually caused lots of damage in Russia and a fair few people were injured. Now that pieces of the rock have been collected we will hopefully obtain one or two of these fragments for analysis at the Open University where we can look at it in detail under a microscope and measure its oxygen isotopes to learn more about where and how it formed. In the meantime, reports suggest it’s an ‘ordinary chondrite’ which is a common type of meteorite originating from an asteroid type that we have many samples from on Earth. However, every new meteorite has the potential to tell us something new about the formation of the Solar System and it may turn out that this is a new type of asteroid never sampled before. We’ll learn more over the coming months as scientists study it in more detail.

Piece in The Guardian Newspaper:

BBC breakfast piece:

BBC Newround piece:

Cafe Scientifique, Reading

Louisa and I preparing for our talk, disco lights added a fun atmosphere.

Last night I went along to Monroe’s Rock Café in Reading with Dr Louisa Preston (Open University) to talk to a Café Scientifique group about ‘Life in the Cosmos’. The event was attended by 90 people and begun with us talking for around 30 minutes about our research. Louisa started off with how we search for, and understand, life in the Solar System. She then handed over to me to talk about how life might have been delivered to Earth on asteroids and comets. We then had a short break where we were able to speak to people about the meteorite samples we took along, including a piece of the Moon, Mars and a very heavy iron meteorite called Gibeon. Everyone was very excited about the samples and it was great to see people being so interested in holding a piece of Mars! We then fielded questions from the audience, having interesting debates as far-reaching as the evolution of life on Earth to the use of oxygen isotopes in the understanding of the Solar System.

Monroe's Rock Cafe filling up with audience members for our talk.
Monroe’s Rock Cafe filling up with audience members for our talk.


All in all it was a really fun event and I’d happily do one again. Café Scientifique aims to bring science out to the wider public by removing the academic setting and having presentations in a bar or café. We weren’t allowed a slide show so just spoke freely about our work which was actually less scary than I’d imagined. I’d highly recommend finding a Café nearby to go along to, it’s a good way to spend an evening.

Close Earth flyby of asteroid 2012 DA14

Another astronomy related post. This time about an asteroid rather than a comet. On Friday 15th February asteroid 2012 DA14 will make a very close flyby (28,000 kms) of the Earth. This is at a similar height to some high orbiting satellites and, therefore, closer than the Moon. This asteroid is not set to actually hit the Earth in 2013, and it won’t when it returns to Earth in 2020. However, if it had been on a collison course with Earth then it could have caused some damage because it’s around 50 metres wide. Although, considering that over half of the Earth is covered by water then any asteroid on a collision course with Earth would be more likely to hit water than any major city.

You should be able to see the asteroid in the night sky on February 15th but it will be quite faint because, unlike comets, it doesn’t produce a coma when flying near to the Sun. It will be low to the north-eastern horizon and moving quite quickly (around 20,000-30,000 kph)!

The asteroid is known as an NEO or a Near-Earth Asteroid and was detected by an observatory in Spain. Unfortunately it won’t be a particularly useful asteroid for my type of science because I would need a sample of it on Earth in order to analyse it in a mass spectrometer to see what elements it contained. However, in the future it may be important for humans to understand how we might be able to deflect asteroids if they happened to be on a collision course with Earth…asteroids have certainly collided with Earth in the past and so are expected to in the future…this isn’t just the stuff of movies!! Hopefully if they send up Bruce Willis to sort it out then they could get him to collect a sample for the cosmochemists…now that bit wasn’t in the movie!


Comet sightings and meteor showers

If you’re inclined to gaze up at the night sky occasionally then keep your eyes out this year because we are lucky to have 2 comets passing the Earth that both have the potential to be seen with the naked eye. Below are some details about the two comets: Comet PANSTARRS and Comet ISON. Be warned though, comets are invariably hard to predict so some of this information is subject to change depending what the comet feels like doing. I’ll try to update as and when there’s any news. It’s always good to remember the following saying:

“Comets, they’re like cats, they’ve got tails and they’re unpredictable”. I don’t know who originally said this but I’ve never forgotten it.

Note: Neither of these comets have any chance of hitting the Earth so we can view their beauty without worrying about any nasty side effects.

Image source:
This view shows us how to view on comet on December 18th, 2013, looking west.
Image source:


The first comet to be seen this year is Comet PANSTARRS (official name: Comet C/2011 L4). It has been predicted that comet PANSTARRS will pass closest to the Earth at 1.1 AU (AU means ‘Astronomical Units’ which is the average distance between the Earth and Sun. 1.1 AU is about 93 million miles) on March 5th, 2013. It will then pass close to the Sun (within 0.3 AU, about 28 million miles) where it will be heated up causing the ice it contains to vaporise resulting in a brightening of the comet and the production of a classic comet tail (or a coma). So, in the northern hemisphere we should be able to see comet PANSTARRS in the evening sky low in the west throughout March. It may even be possible to see it without a telescope or binoculars.

Comet ISON

Comet ISON (official name C/2012 S1) has the potential to be the more exciting comet of 2013 and may even produce a meteor shower on 16th January 2014 as the Earth passes through the coma of comet debris. We’ll have to keep our fingers crossed though because it has a bit of a perilous journey. Comet ISON is classed as a ‘sun-grazing comet’ because on November 28th it will pass within 0.012 AU (750,000 miles) of the Sun. If it manages to survive this very close encounter, and not disintegrate into small pieces, then comet ISON will be a beautiful sight in the night sky, glowing as bright as the moon, and it may even be possible to see it in the daytime too throughout December (I’ve heard that Boxing Day (December 26th) may be the best day)! This all depends on it surviving though…fingers crossed.

Comet ISON is a special comet not only for astronomers but also cosmochemists like me. This is because it is a dynamically new comet meaning that it has come from the Oort cloud and is entering the inner Solar System for the first time. So, all the dust that it captured from the early Solar System has not been processed by the Sun’s heat before meaning it contains pristine material. The NASA Cosmic Dust Lab sometimes make collections of dust with their high altitude aircraft that coincide with meteor showers. The ISON meteor shower, if it happens, will be a particularly special one and I really hope that NASA can get some aircraft up with dust collectors on to collect some Comet ISON dust.

Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, Houston


I’ve just found out that my work has been chosen as a talk presentation at the 44th annual ‘LPSC’ conference in Houston, Texas in March. This is a large planetary science meeting for the international community bringing together specialists in petrology, geochemistry, geophysics, geology, and astronomy to present the latest results of research in planetary science. The five-day conference is organized by topical symposia and problem-oriented sessions.

I’ll be presenting my recent research on the silicate and organic compositions of comets based on analyses of cometary dust particles in the ‘Stardust and IDPs’ session which will be on Friday March 22nd. I’ll also be convening the session with Don Brownlee so I’m really excited. I only have 15 minutes to present my findings (this is normal at large conferences) which doesn’t sound very long…and its not, it always flies by and there’s a lot to get through. Just preparing my data for the presentation will take me the best part of 3 weeks…better get started!

You can follow the conference on Twitter using #lpsc2013. There will be microbloggers this year so hopefully lots of information will be spread throughout the global community really quickly.

You can see a 2-page abstract about the work I will present here. I’ll be writing this up as my next journal paper too.