NASA Moving Its Mars Satellites to Avoid Comet Threat

Sunday, 03 Aug 2014 11:09 PM

By Greg Richter

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NASA is bracing for a near flyby of Mars by a comet in October, hoping to keep three orbiters out of harms way while gathering new data.

At first, NASA officials were excited that a comet was passing by so closely. Then, as they realized the danger from dust particles, they grew worried. Now, they believe they have mitigated the risk and again are looking forward to studying the comet and its tail, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times.

Comet Siding Spring, officially known as C/2013 A1, will pass near the Red Planet on Oct. 19, and its dust trail could easily destroy the two orbiters already circling the planet, and one that will arrive in September.

As the comet gets closer to the sun, tiny ice particles will be released forming the "tail" for which comets are famous. But those particles are traveling at 35 miles per second and one hit could spell the end of an orbiter. Though the particles are estimated to be traveling at no more than one per square mile of space, NASA doesn't want to take any chances.

Scientists at the Jet Propulsion Lab considered several options on decreasing the risk of a strike before deciding on possibly the simplest: hiding behind Mars.

The satellites must remain in constant motion, so they can't simply be parked behind the planet, but JPL believes it can slow them down enough so they are hidden for the geatest duration of the danger, about 30 to 40 minutes.

NASA is excited at the chance to study Comet Siding Spring because it will pass a mere 80,000 miles from Mars. That's 10 times closer than any comet has been known come to earth since humans have begun observing them.

"This is a once-in-a-several-million-year event," program manager Don Yeomans told the Times. "If it were coming this close to Earth, it would be a scientific bonanza, plus a global celestial display."

Scientists intend to use the orbiters' instruments to observe the size and shape of the comet's nucleus and determine which gases comprise its coma and tail. They also want to see how the gases react with the Martian atmosphere.

The rovers still working on the planet should be safe, NASA says, because they expect any comet dust to burn up on contact with the atmosphere.

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