Siding Spring, a comet heading toward Mars from the Oort cloud will fly by the red planet on October 19. It has NASA scientists worried because the celestial body will shower dust particles that could potentially damage the space agency’s satellites and rovers. The comet was discovered by Australian comet hunter Robert H. McNaught on January 3, 2013 at Australia’s Siding Spring Observatory. The comet was named after the observatory.
Siding Spring is moving at 35 miles per second
According to scientists, the comet is speeding toward Mars at a speed of 1250,000 miles per hour or about 35 miles per second. The dust particles will blow by 25 times faster than a projectile fired from a tank. There will be millions of such particles. At that speed, they can damage or ruin a spacecraft or rover. NASA expects Siding Spring to travel within 80,000 miles of the red planet. Though that seems like a large distance, it’s minuscule in astronomical terms.
Siding Spring will come ten times closer to the Mars surface than any known comet has ever flown by Earth. The comet will shower a variety of dust particles, gases and water vapor. The dust particles will be very diffuse. Comet hunters estimate that “only one dust particle will pass through any given square kilometer of space.” Despite their small size, these particles can rip through any satellite in their path.
Siding Spring could send shock-waves in Mars’ atmosphere
Siding Spring itself is unlikely to strike the Mars. But it will spew a large amount of particles on the upper layer of the red planet’s atmosphere. It may cause shock-waves in the atmosphere. Fortunately, NASA scientists believe that their satellites and rovers have little risk of being damaged. However, the possibility that the comet could shatter as it approaches Mars can’t be ruled out. In that scenario, NASA is taking precautions to ensure that its satellites are on the other side of Mars when Siding Spring hits on October 19.
Despite its potential dangers, researchers are excited to explore the research possibilities that the comet represents. The Hubble and Spitzer telescopes will monitor the passage of the comet. Its half-a-mile wide nucleus contains water, dust and gas that remain frozen for billions of years. As it moves closer to the sun, the ice begins to sublimate due to increase in radiation. As a result, it releases ancient gas and dust particles that form its long tail.