NASA preparing for comet encounter this weekend
Comet Siding Spring will be making its closest pass to Mars this Sunday, bringing with it a wealth of information about the formation of our solar system 4.6 billion years ago.
Siding Spring - named after the Australian observatory which first identified it - comes from the Oort Cloud, material left over from the formation of the solar system. It’s thought that the comet has come straight from the Oort cloud, making it the first time it has passed this close to the sun, giving scientists a unique opportunity to observe it and gather data as it passes only 87,000 miles (139,500km) from the surface of Mars. That’s less than half the distance between the Earth and the Moon, and close enough for NASA to decide to ‘hide’ satellites currently orbiting Mars to avoid the trail of debris. Their orbits have been altered just enough to ensure they will all be passing behind Mars at the time the worst of the comet dust is passing, while allowing them to still observe as much of the comet encounter as possible.
NASA has been hard at work repurposing a wide range of spacecraft for this comet encounter, with Mars satellites like the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) - which normally faces down towards Mars - being turned skywards to capture the event. Instruments on Martian soil are also being used to gather data, with cameras on the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers being adjusted to observe the comet.
Images of the comet will be posted in the days and weeks to come, at mars.nasa.gov/comets/sidingspring.
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