On Sunday, Mars will have a visitor. At its closest point, Siding Spring will be less than 87,000 miles away from the red planet. That might sound like a lot on Earth, but in astronomical terms it’s incredibly close.
According to Space.com, it’s about one-third of the way from here to the moon, “and 16 times closer than any known comet has ever come to the Earth.”
Comet Siding Spring’s nucleus is believed to be around a half-mile in diameter, and will be the first Oort Cloud comet to be studied up close.
Research teams from around the world will have a front row seat as several Mars orbiters will observe the comet as it whizzes by. NASA’s MAVEN Spacecraft and India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) entered Mars orbit last month, and will observe the comet.
Even NASA’s rovers on Mars’ surface will turn their attention towards the sky. They may have the best seats in the house, weather permitting. If the weather cooperates, we could see the first images of a comet from another planet.
Various telescopes above Earth, including the Hubble Telescope, along with ground observatories will be keeping a close eye on Mars on Sunday.
What about you? You’re going to need a good pair of binoculars or a telescope. Even then, folks in the Northern Hemisphere will have a hard time seeing Siding Spring fly by Mars. Best viewing will be in the Southern Hemisphere. People living in South Africa and Australia have the best chance at seeing the comet.
I’m sure NASA will hook us up sometime this weekend or early next week.
Space agencies are taking no chances with Siding Spring. NASA, the European Space Agency and India’s Space Agency have altered the orbits of their orbiters.
Image credit: NASA, ESA