NASA had a chance to capture unprecedented images of a spectacular meteor shower on Mars — but the space agency moved all of its Mars explorer spacecraft currently orbiting the Red Planet out of the way of the barreling comet known as Siding Spring, and the neither of the two NASA rovers on the Martian surface are equipped with the video capabilities now available on an iPhone.
It’s not as if the comet’s approach somehow caught NASA by surprise. Though the Siding Spring Comet had never made a visit to the inner part of the solar system before, it has been headed this way for about the last million years.
When the comet zoomed past Mars last month at a velocity of 35 miles per second — 126,000 miles per hour — it sent a spray of space dust and thousands of meteorites into the Martian atmosphere, that would have unleashed a light show more dazzling than any meteor shower seen on Earth. If anyone was there to see it.
NASA scientists are kicking themselves even harder because the close shave between Mars and the comet is the sort of amazing cosmic event that happens only once every 8 million years or so, the scientists say.
Nonetheless, NASA says that it had no choice but to move its orbiters to the opposite side of Mars, to avoid serious damage to the spacecraft from the shower of cosmic debris.
“After observing the effects on Mars and how the comet dust slammed into the upper atmosphere, it makes me very happy that we decided to put our spacecraft on the other side of Mars at the peak of the dust tail passage and out of harm’s way,” said NASA Planetary Science Director Jim Green. “I really believe that hiding them like that really saved them, and it gave us a fabulous opportunity to make these observations.”
Siding Spring is a remnant of the Oort Cloud, which is a vast belt of debris left over from when the solar system itself first formed about 4.6 billion years ago.
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter satellite was able to analyze the comet’s effect on the Red Planet, and came up with some surprising findings. The meteor shower on Mars would have been far more spectacular than even the NASA scientists anticipated, the Orbiter’s data showed, making the scientists even more frustrated that their instruments were not able to memorialize the event in photos and video.
[Image: Artist’s Conception By NASA/JPL-Caltech]