NASA billed the event as a once-in-a-lifetime close encounter between a planet (Mars) and a comet. It passed by at about one-third the distance between the moon and the Earth, risking the three orbiters currently studying the Red Planet.
As previously reported by the Inquisitr, the comet, named Siding Spring, is as big as a mountain and moving at about 126,000 miles per hour. Siding Spring came as close as 87,000 miles away from Mars on the 19th, making it closer than any comet pass from Earth in recorded history. In addition, the Siding Spring is from the mysterious Oort cloud surrounding the solar system, believed to be the leftovers from the creation of the sun and planets, making it a fascinating research opportunity.
The potential for scientific research (and great space photos) is a huge opportunity for NASA, but first the space agency had to make sure the comet didn’t destroy their research infrastructure.
Three satellites, Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN), were potential victims of the comet and had to run to the other side of the planet to be safe.
Why did the orbiters need an entire planet for cover?
The Siding Spring forced the spacecraft to take extreme measures because even the “high-velocity dust particles” present in the comet’s debris field could potentially tear through them like a shotgun blast according to NASA press releases. The risk forced NASA to make preparations far in advance, adjusting the spacecrafts’ orbits starting on August 5th.
The work paid off, and all three the Mars orbiters appear to be safe after a small, expected radio silence. Odyssey Mission Manager Chris Potts added that not only is Odyssey fine, but got a great view.
“The telemetry received from Odyssey this afternoon confirms not only that the spacecraft is in fine health but also that it conducted the planned observations of comet Siding Spring within hours of the comet’s closest approach to Mars.”
The Reconnaissance Orbiter and MAVEN also made observations on the comet, which may yield secrets about the formation of the solar system from its earliest states. NASA reported that they started receiving the data on the 19th.
A few of the pictures have already been uploaded showing the comet as a glint in the Martian night sky.
As for the comet Siding Spring, it no longer poses a threat to any nearby planets, including Mars and the Earth, and is continuing its long lonely journey back to the Oort cloud.
[Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech]