A comet closes on Mars on Sunday with a once-in-a-million flyby, and it will continue to worry space scientists worldwide for weeks to come. According to Space.com, the Siding Spring Comet (AKA Comet C/2013 A1) closes on Mars in close range at 2:27 p.m. EDT (18:27 GMT) on Sunday, October 19, 2014.
Over the past weeks, NASA’s homepage for the Siding Spring Comet has been concerned about the outcome around the time the comet closes on Mars. For some scientists, it is suspected that there will be a disastrous impact as the comet closes on Mars.
The likelihood the comet closes on Mars and creates impact was estimated by scientists to be unlikely from the beginning, but a brush with the atmosphere of Mars may put expensive space observation technology at risk. It is estimated that when the comet closes on Mars, it will be three times closer to Mars than the moon is to Earth, but the large comet mass itself is only part of the problem.
Other issues from when the comet closes on Mars pertains to the dust tail that trails behind the comet and will leave Mars’ atmosphere dirty. Currently, it is thought by scientists hosting the live broadcast of the comet flyby on Space.com that it will be several weeks before the true effects of Comet Siding Spring are known.
According to the live broadcast of the Siding Spring Mars flyby, at an estimated 200-pounds per second, small pieces of debris as small as a grain of sand could irreparably damage vital space observation equipment because it will be moving so fast.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Francisco Diego, a Senior Research Fellow at the Department of Physics and Astronomy, University College London says, “When [comets flyby a planet too closely] they release a lot of material, dust, solid particles and gases, water and hydrogen. All these particles, all these ejecta are going to interact with the atmosphere of Mars and that will be the interesting thing.”
Jim Green, a scientist at NASA, concurs with Diego and also told Al Jazeera, “The dust from the comet may be a hazard to our spacecraft.”
The comet closes on Mars today, but the knowledge of this comet came last year through the Siding Spring Observatory in Australia. It is estimated that this comet comes from the Oort cloud that originates on the outer edges of our solar system. When the comet closes on Mars, it will have traveled for more than a million years.
As the comet closes on Mars over the course of Sunday, NASA will continue making adjustments to space observation equipment. If the comet closes on Mars too closely and damages any technology sent by Earth, it could mean millions of dollars in damages and years of lost research.
Announced over the month of October, NASA says in a press release video that, in case the comet closes on Mars too closely to the surface, it has been preparing to make some equipment dormant. When the comet closes on Mars and leaves its dust tail behind, all of the NASA equipment that could be affected will be on the opposite side of Mars and out of harm’s way.
Watching the event from Earth is not easy, but during the times when the comet closes on Mars, it will be viewable with websites like the Slooh Community Observatory. During the time that the comet closes on Mars, it was estimated to be about 132,000 km from it. Anyone with questions about the event can send them to scientists on Twitter to #SloohComet.
For scientists and observers of the comet flyby, there will be over five different types of space observation equipment to capture the images as the comet closes on Mars. Scientists believe the dust and gas from the comet could cause auroras in the Martian atmosphere. The upcoming pictures from these unique auroras will likely be major headlines in the next weeks as the comet closes on Mars story continues.