NASA is taking steps to protect its Mars orbiters, while preserving opportunities to gather valuable scientific data, as Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring heads toward a close flyby of Mars on Oct. 19.
The comet’s nucleus will miss Mars by about 82,000 miles (132,000 kilometers), shedding material hurtling at about 35 miles (56 kilometers) per second, relative to Mars and Mars-orbiting spacecraft. At that velocity, even the smallest particle — estimated to be about one-fiftieth of an inch (half a millimeter) across — could cause significant damage to a spacecraft.
NASA currently operates two Mars orbiters, with a third on its way and expected to arrive in Martian orbit just a month before the comet flyby. Teams operating the orbiters plan to have all spacecraft positioned on the opposite side of the Red Planet when the comet is most likely to pass by.
“Three expert teams have modeled this comet for NASA and provided forecasts for its flyby of Mars,” explained Rich Zurek, chief scientist for the Mars Exploration Program at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “The hazard is not an impact of the comet nucleus, but the trail of debris coming from it. Using constraints provided by Earth-based observations, the modeling results indicate that the hazard is not as great as first anticipated. Mars will be right at the edge of the debris cloud, so it might encounter some of the particles — or it might not.”