MAVEN's View of Siding Spring at Mars

This composite of C/2013 A1 (Siding Spring) merges Swift UVOT images taken between May 27 and 29, 2014. Sunlight reflected from the comet's dust, which produces most of the light in this image, appears yellow; violet shows ultraviolet light produced by hydroxyl (OH), a molecular fragment of water. Image Credit: NASA/Swift/D. Bodewits (UMD), DSS

This composite of C/2013 A1 (Siding Spring) merges Swift UVOT images taken between May 27 and 29, 2014. Sunlight reflected from the comet’s dust, which produces most of the light in this image, appears yellow; violet shows ultraviolet light produced by hydroxyl (OH), a molecular fragment of water. Image Credit: NASA/Swift/D. Bodewits (UMD), DSS

 

Today is the day. On Oct 19, 2014, the comet Siding Spring is set to pass within 88,000 miles of Mars. For a comparison, the distance between the Moon and the Earth is 238,900 miles.

 


Observing Comet Siding Spring at Mars. Credit: MAVEN (YouTube)
 

NASA will be watching the comet with the entire fleet of active orbiters and rovers now at Mars. MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN Mission) will be studying how gas and dust from the comet interact with the upper atmosphere of Mars.

NASA is taking steps to protect its Mars orbiters, while preserving opportunities to gather valuable scientific data. The NASA orbiters at Mars are Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Odyssey and MAVEN. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This artist’s concept shows the NASA Mars orbiters lining up behind Mars for their “duck and cover” maneuver to shield them from comet dust that may result from the close flyby of Comet Siding Spring (C/2013 A1) on Oct. 19, 2014. NASA is taking steps to protect its Mars orbiters, while preserving opportunities to gather valuable scientific data. The NASA orbiters at Mars are Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Odyssey and MAVEN. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

However, NASA will also need to position orbiting spacecraft in a safe spot for the cometary encounter – ensuring that materials shed from the comet do not strike any sensitive mission equipment.

Diagram showing the position of the Oort Cloud. Credit: Southwest Research Institute

Diagram showing the position of the Oort Cloud. Credit: Southwest Research Institute

The material released by Siding Spring will be traveling at around 35 miles per second, relative to the spacecraft. At that speed, even tiny flecks of material can cause a lot of damage.

Siding Spring is an object that originates from a region of the outer solar system known as the Oort cloud.

Studying Siding Spring will help astrobiologists understand the nature of objects in this distant and mysterious region of the Solar System. Some theories suggest that these objects could have delivered water and other materials to the early Earth that were essential for the origins of life on our planet.

For more information from NASA (and some cool interactive content), visit: http://mars.nasa.gov/comets/sidingspring/