Oct 20, 2014 02:43 PM EDT
It's been a flyby anticipated for months, and one whose arrival sparked much commotion at NASA's headquarters this past weekend. Hurtling through the night sky at nearly 125,000 miles per hour, Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring passed right by the planet Mars early Sunday afternoon, Oct. 19, coming in close contact with the Martian outer atmosphere at about 2:27pm ET.
As researchers repositioned orbiting spacecrafts, currently monitoring our nearby red neighbor, others anticipated drastic affects that Comet Siding Spring's flyby would have on the Martian atmosphere. But even from a distance behind the shielding of the planet Mars, NASA researchers are hopeful that the passing comet may give insights into the origins of our very own solar system.
"We're glad the spacecraft came through" principal researcher for NASA's Maven spacecraft, Bruce Jakosky says. "We're excited to complete our observations of how the comet effects Mars, and we're eager to get to our primary science phase."
The comet, in its near collision course with the desolate planet, threatened decades of research as it shed cometary debris headed straight for orbiting satellites put in place by NASA over the years. With debris calculated to be moving at a rate of 35 miles per second, researchers believe that even a piece one-fiftieth of an inch wide could cause irreparable damage to the Mars orbiting spacecrafts. However, with a little forethought to the positioning and orbit of the satellites, all three NASA orbiters (the Mars Odyssey, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Orbiter) were able to not only avoid the damage of debris, but were also able to have a front-row view of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
"The spacecraft performed flawlessly throughout the comet flyby" Project Manager of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Dan Johnston says. "It maneuvered for the planned observations of the comet and emerged unscathed."
During the course of the rather brief interaction the comet had with the outer atmosphere of Mars, NASA orbiters like the newest Maven spacecraft remained low-data-rate communications and will be delivering invaluable information over the course of the next few days. And while simple questions like the composition and size/structure of the comet will easily be addressed, researcher are also eager to investigate the interactions created with the planet's atmosphere, perhaps even beginning to better understand the origins of our solar system in the process.
"This is a cosmic gift that could potentially keep on giving, and the agency's diverse science missions will be in full receive mode" associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, John Grunsfeld said in a statement released earlier this month. "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."
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