Comet Siding Spring to Endanger NASA Rovers and Satellites of Mars?

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Comet Siding Spring (C/2013 A1) is set to fly within 82,000 miles of Mars on Oct. 19, 2014, hurtling past the planet at 35 miles per second. Although this distance seems relatively vast, it is considered very near in astronomical terms.

Describing comets as “little cannonballs,” the chief scientist for the Mars Program Office at NASA’s JPL, Richard Zurek, has expressed his concern that comet Siding Spring could cause untold damage to orbiting satellites.

Siding Spring’s Discovery

Early last year, Australian astronomer Robert H. McNaught sighted comet Siding Spring from the Siding Spring Observatory in the Warrumbungle Mountains. At the time, the comet had just passed by Jupiter and was traveling at around 125,000 miles per hour. McNaught and colleagues set about trying to predict the celestial body’s trajectory through the inner solar system. Much to their surprise, the team discovered that Siding Spring was on a path headed straight for Mars.

The comet is believed to have originated from the Oort cloud, a spherical-shaped, primordial cloud of icy planetesimals that encircles the solar system.

A Danger to Mars Satellites?

Comets typically release gases, water vapor and tiny particles of dust. As Siding Spring’s half-a-mile-wide nucleus moves closer to the Sun, radiation causes the ice to sublimate and release streams of dust and gas. Despite their size, these dust particles present considerable risk to nearby technologies. With two rovers stationed on Mars’ surface, and a total of five satellites in orbit around the planet, NASA officials remain concerned by comet Siding Spring and the damage it could cause.

The agency reports that the comet poses a risk to three satellites, worth $1.5 billion. If these satellites are struck by debris from Siding Spring, it would be impossible to perform repairs so far from Earth. Rovers Curiosity and Opportunity are thought to be safe, as any incoming dust particles would burn up in the Red Planet’s atmosphere.

Out of an abundance of caution, NASA will move their vulnerable satellites. The agency has estimated that the stream of particles released from the comet will be relatively diffuse, with models suggesting only a single particle will travel through each square kilometer of space. Although Zurek admitted the risk presented to satellites is small, he explained that his team was unwilling to take any chances.

The orbiters will be repositioned to a “safe zone,” where Mars will actually help shield the satellites from the cloud of dust particles. The satellites will remain in this region for a period of up to 40 minutes, until the threat has subsided. In the coming weeks, Odyssey, MAVEN and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will perform a series of maneuvers to alter their speeds, in preparation for Siding Spring’s arrival.