Mars gets close encounter with a comet

NASA, ESA point Mars spacecraft at streaking Sliding Spring comet

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The Red Planet

The Red Planet will entertain an uninvited guest this weekend in the form a comet moving at 126,000 mph through its space in the universe. Scientists say the comet called Sliding Spring, will not hit the planet, nor the spacecraft currently orbiting Mars. Just to be safe though, NASA says it will alter the orbits on its spacecraft to make sure they are behind Mars when the comet flies by. All of the instruments however will be pointed at the comet and some interesting new details on comets should be gleaned from the pass. Here’s what’s out there:

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Siding Spring

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

Oct. 19 arrival

Siding Spring’s nucleus will come closest to Mars around 2:27 p.m. EDT on Oct. 19, 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.

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Oort Cloud

Comet Siding Spring comes from the Oort Cloud, material left over from the formation of the solar system, NASA says.

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Credit: Reuters

NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission is to put itself into orbit around Mars and begin a hunt for the planets lost water. According to NASA, MAVEN will have a particularly good opportunity to study the comet, and how its tenuous atmosphere, or coma, interacts with Mars' upper atmosphere.

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Credit: Reuters

More detail on the Maven Mars orbiter.

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Credit: Reuters
Hubble Space Telescope

NASA’s iconic Hubble Space Telescope, also will be in position to observe the unique celestial object.

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NASA’s asteroid hunter

NASA’s asteroid hunter, the Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE), has been imaging, and will continue to image, the comet as part of its operations.

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Heliophysics spacecraft

NASA’s two Heliophysics spacecraft, Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory (STEREO) and Solar and Heliophysics Observatory (SOHO), will image the comet.

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NASA’s Balloon Observation Platform for Planetary Science (BOPPS), a sub-orbital balloon-carried telescope, already has provided observations of the comet in the lead-up to the close encounter with Mars.

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Kepler: According to NASA, In mid-October, Comet Siding Spring will be observed for approximately 77 hours as it passes through Kepler's field of view.

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Swift: in late May, NASA's Swift satellite imaged comet Siding Spring. These optical and ultraviolet observations were the first to reveal how rapidly the comet is producing water and allow astronomers to better estimate its size.  Here is a SWIFT image of the come.

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Spitzer: Currently collects and analyzes light from exoplanets, Spitzer will take a look at Sliding Spring.

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Chandra: Chandra lets scientists obtain X-ray images of exotic environments.

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ESA Mars Express

ESA Mars Express: The European Space Agency’s spacecraft will look to gather geology, atmosphere, surface environment and other environmental information.

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Opportunity: The Opportunity rover has an instrument known as Pancam which has a filter that has been used for astronomical images. NASA will point it at the comet.

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Curiosity: The newest Mars rover, Curiosity, is expected to use its Chemcam device to measure any atmospheric changes as well as gather images of the flyby.

Near miss

More info on the near miss