Comet Close to Mars in 2014 and Curiosity Delayed by Space Weather

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Path of comet 2013 A1 (Siding Spring) in the inner solar system (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Path of comet 2013 A1 (Siding Spring) in the inner solar system (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech).

A newly discovered comet will make a close shave by Mars, with a slight possibility that it may even  collide with the planet, in October 2014.

“On the 19th October 2014, the comet might reach apparent magnitude of -8 to -8.5, as seen from Mars!”  said Leonid Elenin, astronomer at Keldysh Institute of Applied Mathematics. “Perhaps it will be possible to acquire high-resolution images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.”

The new comet C/2013 A1, called Siding Spring, was discovered by the Scottish-Australian astronomer Robert H. McNaught on  January 3, 2013. At the time it was discovered, Comet Siding Spring was 1.07 billion kilometers from the Sun. Considering its orbital eccentricity,  it seems this passage will be for its very first visit in the vicinity of the Sun. It will make its closest passage to the Sun on October 25, 2014 at a distance of 209 million km. However, less than one week earlier, the comet is expected to cross the orbit of Mars, passing very close to that planet. Leonid Elenin’s calculation suggested that it could pass just 41,300 km from the center of the planet.  Comet’s nucleus is estimated to have a diameter from 8 to 50 km. Since the comet is moving at 56 km per second, an impact with the planet could create a crater 10 times the diameter of the nucleus and up to 2 km deep

Such events are not so uncommon in the solar system. Comet Shoemaker-Levy fell into Jupiter in July 1994  and just a few months from now, Comet ISON will pass 10.5 million km from Mars, on October 1, 2013.

In the meantime on the Red Planet, NASA’s Curiosity rover, which just recovered from malfunctions in the primary computer’s flash memory, had to be placed back in safe mode to protect it from a March 5 solar eruption.The rover was designed to withstand unpleasant space weather, but its operators decided to put it back in safe mode as a precaution due to  the recent computer problem. While Curiosity is in precautionary sleep mode, the other rover on Mars’ surface, Opportunity, and the orbiting spacecrafts, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, 2001 Mars Odyssey and Mars Express are carrying on with their normal activities.

The space weather meant a delay for Curiosity’s scientific operation since engineers were in the middle of troubleshooting when it was decided to wait for the weather to pass.

Below, the March 5 Solar flare as captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory:

 

One Response

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