Oct 20, 2014 03:11 PM EDT
Mars had a close call this past weekend as a comet passed so close to the Red Planet that NASA moved its three Mars orbiters to the opposite side of the planet hoping to shield them from the dust and gas debris left by the tail of Comet Siding Spring. NASA's Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and MAVEN orbiter all made the shift before last weekends cosmic encounter, a decisive move that just may have saved the orbiters from malfunction due to the dust released by Siding Spring.
NASA reported that the martian comet encounter was the closest planet-comet incident on record, with Siding Spring passing just an astounding 88,000 miles from Mars' surface. For reference, that's about a third of the distance between Earth and our moon. NASA also confirmed that after the comet's passing, each orbiter was still functional and communicating with Earth properly.
The comet's official title is C/2013 A1 Siding Spring, and provided NASA one of the best chances to view a comet close-up--through the eyes of the martian orbiters, of course. According to NASA, each orbiter was able to observe Siding Spring in its own way. Odyssey used an on-board Thermal Emission Imaging System to snap photos of the comet and also observed how the comet effected the martian atmosphere. Meanwhile, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter also made observations about any changes to the atmosphere brought on by Siding Spring's dusty tail. MAVEN also used its instruments to observe the comet, though details were scant on exactly how it did so.
NASA feels this 'duck and cover' maneuver helped protect their orbiters from the comet's debris, and says that it might take several days before all of the data from last weekend's observations made by the orbiters has been completely downloaded. At that point reseachers and scientists will begin deciphering and studying what was recorded, a process that could take some time before any conclusions or discoveries can be made for certain.
"This comet is making its first visit this close to the sun from the outer solar system's Oort Cloud, so the concerted campaign of observations may yield fresh clues to our solar system's earliest days more than 4 billion years ago," NASA stated.
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