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Satellites spot Siding Spring comet race past Mars in a rare celestial event

A recently discovered comet zoomed past Mars on Sunday afternoon giving scientists a unique chance to study it. The public also got a chance to watch the event on a live stream by Slooh, an organisation that connects telescopes to the internet, and the Virtual Telescope Project.

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Siding Spring swung past Mars in a retrograde direction, the opposite in which the planets revolve around the sun. According to Carey Lisse, a senior astrophysicist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, this means that any dust that comes off the comet will be moving at about 119 000mph (190,000 km/h) relative to Mars.

“Anything that comes off the comet that hits either Mars or the spacecraft is going to pack a real large amount of kinetic energy — a real wallop — so that’s one of the things that we’ve been worried about,” Lisse said.

David Humm, a space scientist with the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland said of the phenomenon.

“This comet is coming into the solar system straight from the Oort Cloud. It’s likely this is its first time this close to the sun.”

The comet was discovered by Robert McNaught in January 2013. It gets its name, Siding Spring, because McNaught first identified it using the Uppsala Southern Schmidt Telescope at the Siding Spring Observatory near Coonabarabran, New South Wales, Australia.

Siding Spring is estimated that it is the size of an Appalachian mountain and is only about 1000m (3 300ft) wide and comes from the Oort Cloud — a collection of icy bodies at the edge of the solar system. Half of the comet is rocky, and the other half is made up of volatile ices, such as water and carbon dioxide.

Researchers have offered guesses about its reason to stay off the grid until 2013. They believe that the comet has very been altered very little from of its formation more than 4.5 billion years ago.

“Siding Spring was created in the first few million years of Earth’s solar system”, Lisse, said during a NASA news conference last week.

It likely formed somewhere between the orbits of Jupiter and Neptune, where many similar objects coalesced into the giant planets. But a gravitational push kicked Siding Spring out into the Oort Cloud; it took another jolt from a passing star a million years ago or so to send it toward the inner solar system.

The streaming was possible because of satellites and rovers built on Mars. Nasa’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was positioned so that it could capture a picture of the comet — something that would been the first for an Oort Cloud visitor. The other other satellites studied its dust gas, dusts shroud known as the coma and its tail which is formed of the material that trails away from it. More importantly what the satellites and rovers were meant to examine were interactions with the Martian atmosphere.

Scientists are expected to release their initial findings in the coming days.

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