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Mars Comet Flyby

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Scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory are preparing all of their equipment both orbiting and on Mars, to collect and observe data from what their calling a “once in a lifetime” viewing event of a never-seen-before comet passing about 87,000 miles from the surface.

Comet C/2013 A1, also called comet Siding Spring, will pass within about 87,000 miles (139,500 kilometers) by Mars on Oct. 19, at less than half the distance between Earth and our moon and less than one-tenth the distance of any known comet flyby of Earth.

Siding Spring’s nucleus will come closest to Mars around 2:27 p.m. EDT, hurtling at about 126,000 mph (56 kilometers per second). This proximity will provide an unprecedented opportunity for researchers to gather data on both the comet and its effect on the Martian atmosphere.

“This is a cosmic science gift that could potentially keep on giving, and the agency’s diverse science missions will be in full receive mode,” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington DC. “This particular comet has never before entered the inner solar system, so it will provide a fresh source of clues to our solar system’s earliest days.”

NASA said the Siding Spring comet came from the Oort Cloud, a spherical region of space surrounding our sun and occupying space at a distance between 5,000 and 100,000 astronomical units. It is a giant swarm of icy objects thought to be material left over from the formation of our solar system 4.6 billion years ago.

Scientists hope to learn more about the materials, including water and carbon compounds, that existed during the solar system’s formation.

NASA is repositioning their Mars orbiters, using the planet as a shield so that they are not damaged by the ice and dust cloud trailing Siding Spring.

“The hazard is not an impact of the comet nucleus itself, but the trail of debris coming from it. Using constraints provided by Earth-based observations, the modeling results indicate that the hazard is not as great as first anticipated. Mars will be right at the edge of the debris cloud, so it might encounter some of the particles — or it might not,” said Rich Zurek, chief scientist for the Mars Exploration Program at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

The Mars orbiters will gather information before, during and after the comet flyby. Measuring the size, rotation and activity of the comet’s nucleus, the variability and gas composition of the coma around the nucleus, and the size and distribution of dust particles in the comet’s tail.

Scientists said that Mars’s thin atmosphere should protect the Mars rovers Opportunity and Curiosity from any comet dust that may reach the planet.

Both rovers are scheduled to make observations of the comet.

Earth-based and space telescopes, including the Hubble Space Telescope, and the agency’s astrophysics space observatories — Kepler, Swift, Spitzer, Chandra, along with the ground-based Infrared Telescope Facility on Mauna Kea, Hawaii — will also be tracking the event.

Scientists hope to learn more about how Siding Spring’s own atmosphere interacts with the upper atmosphere of Mars, as well as study the particlate dust left behind.

 

 

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Mars Comet Flyby

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