NASA prepares for Mars to have a visitor
If you could stand on Mars on Sunday, October 19, looking up would grant you an amazing and possibly horrifying sight. At a distance of a mere 87,000 miles, Comet Siding Spring will pass the Red Planet at a historically close range, giving us our fist look at the nucleus of a comet from the far off Oort Cloud, and potentially giving us a look at what the solar system was like as it was first forming. And NASA will be ready.
There’s a popular meme going around at the moment that claims Mars is the only planet known to be inhabited entirely by robots. While not exactly living up to the sci-fi ideals the meme is building on, it’s technically true, and on Sunday those robots will all be looking up as NASA prepares to document the comet from the surface of Mars to see the effects the comet has on the planet’s atmosphere, according to Space.com. Meanwhile, other robots will be following the comet from space to better understand its origins.
Although 87,000 miles may not seem quite as close as, say, Maverick and Goose doing a flyby on the tower, in astronomical terms it is shockingly close. To give it some perspective, our moon is around 239,000 miles away, and the Earth is not quite 25,000 miles from pole to pole. If Comet Siding Spring were to pass Earth as closely as it is passing Mars, it would likely scare the crap out of millions of us and spawn a new spate of asteroid doomsayers; good for NASA’s future budget, bad for the sanity of our race.
The comet itself is judged to be around 4.6 billion years old, and hails from the Oort Cloud, a region on the outermost edge of the solar system that consists of countless icy rocks. The Oort Cloud itself is around 93 million miles from the sun, which means Comet Siding Spring has managed to retain its initial ice core, without the heat from the sun to melt it away. Studying the comet should provide clues as to what the solar system was like back when it first began to form.
“That’s one of the reasons we study comets — they’re the remnants of our solar system’s formation,” Padma Yanamandra-Fisher, a senior research scientist at the Space Science Institute’s Rancho Cucamonga branch in California said during a recent news conference.
NASA has been studying the comet from a distance since its discovery in 2013, but the real crown jewel of the research will come when it passes Mars. The comet, which has an estimated core of between 0.5 miles and 5 miles in diameter, will be monitored closely from space by NASA’s three Mars orbiters: Mars Odyssey, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), and the MAVEN spacecraft. At the same time, from the surface of Mars both the Curiosity and Opportunity will train their sensors on the comet.
Besides the potential information gained from observing the comet itself, NASA is also excited to see how its particles interact with the atmosphere. The reactions could give scientists a better understanding of the air on Mars.
Comet Sliding Spring will whiz past Mars at 126,000 mph on its long journey back toward deep space. NASA will continue to track the comet as it makes its way back out of our solar system.