Earlier this year, Comet C/2013 A1 (AKA Siding Spring) was discovered. When NASA officials reviewed the comet’s trajectory, they gave it a 1-in-8000 chance of hitting Mars in October of 2014. This sparked a ton of concern and interest, primarily on the internet, for the safety of the Martian rovers. New calculations from NASA have revised the probability of an impact event to 1 in 120,000.

 

Interestingly enough, even though the probability of impact is now extremely remote, the revised trajectory has Siding Spring flying closer to Mars than originally expected. The comet is now expected to pass within about 68,000 miles of the red planet. To add a little excitement, it’s possible that one of the many spacecraft in orbit around Mars might be able to image the passing comet. The Opportunity and Curiosity rovers also have a slim chance of being able to observe the event, showing us a picture of a comet as seen from the Martian surface (which would be awesome).

 

I wouldn’t get your hopes too high just yet as Jim Bell, a planetary scientist and Mars imaging specialist, explains, “The issue with Mars Odyssey and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will be the ability to point them in the right direction; they are used to looking down, not up. Mission designers will have to figure out if that is possible.” Bell continues to describe the rovers’ slightly better chances at spying the comet, “Opportunity is solar-powered and so would need to dip into reserve battery power to operate the cameras at night. Whether or not we will be able to do this will depend on how much power the rover is getting from dusty solar panels in the daytime. On the other hand, Curiosity is nuclear-powered, so it could have better odds at night-time.”

 

In addition to potentially seeing the comet, NASA’s fleet could potentially see Martian Aurora’s, a meteor shower, and could learn invaluable information about both Mars and the Comet by watching the comet’s tale interact with Mars. Currently, Siding Spring’s closest approach to Mars is expected to happen on October 19, 2014.


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