Space scientists are eagerly digesting information about a comet from the outer reaches of the solar system that has made a rare close pass by Mars.
A fleet of space probes around the Red Planet were poised to track and record data about the Comet Siding Spring,
as it sped past at a distance of just 138,000 km, less than half the distance between Earth and the Moon.
It is thought to be the first time the comet, named after the Australian observatory that discovered it last year, has visited the inner solar system. Sliding Spring is believed to have begun its journey in the Oort Cloud beyond Neptune more than a million years ago.
Its passage was followed closely by spacecraft in orbit and on the surface of Mars, including the European Space Agency’s Mars Express. Back on Earth scientists are now waiting to see what kind of impact its had on the planet’s atmosphere. It may possibly have left Mars engulfed in a cloud of comet dust.
“The comet has never ever been closer to the sun than we think maybe Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus or Neptune’s distance,” said astrophysicist Carey Lisse, with Johns Hopkins University in Laurel, Maryland, ahead of its arrival. Despite the unprecedented nature of the event it is not thought any of the spacecraft monitoring it are at risk. It is, however, a source of enormous interest to space scientists as our Space programme producer Jeremy Wilks explained in his preview.
By Nial O’Reilly and Jeremy Wilks with Reuters