While a number of pictures of the comet were taken, NASA and other space agencies took their orbiters to safe cover on the other side of the “Red Planet” in order to avoid potential damage from the once-in-a-million-years occurrence. NASA had three Mars spacecraft in the “neighborhood”: the Mars Odyssey, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Orbiter. In addition, ESA moved its Mars Express out of the way while India’s budget orbiter that just arrived on the scene was also forced to “duck and cover” behind the planet.
Siding Spring comet moving quite quickly
Siding Spring was moving right along when it passed at a speed of over 125,000 miles-per-hour leaving researchers feeling quite fortunate that all orbiters were able to avoid damage.
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“All it takes is a little tiny grain of sand traveling at that speed and you’ve got damage to solar arrays, or your propulsion line or critical wires” team leader of NASA’s MAVEN mission to Mars, Nick Schneider says.
The comet Siding Spring was discovered in January of 2013 by the Australian Observatory of the same name. The comet has had a long journey in its lifetime, it is presently on its first pass of the sun since its birth in the Oort Cloud on the edges of our solar system almost 4.5 billion years ago. It is largely comprised of gas, ice, and pebbles with the potential for doing real damage to the orbiters given its loose density.
Images later this week
“This is a cosmic science gift that could potentially keep on giving, and the agency’s diverse science missions will be in full receive mode” astronaut for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, John Grunsfeld says. “This particular comet has never before entered the inner solar system, so it will provide a fresh source of clues to our solar system’s earliest days.”
While the aforementioned orbiters grabbed a number of images of the passing as well as other data, those images won’t arrive to their respective space agencies until sometime later this week.