NASA’s week just got a bit more interesting. Comet Siding Spring is closing in on Mars. While the comet will not score a direct hit on the red planet, its coma could be a potential problem.
Scores of scientists and engineers are studying the comet to see if the comet’s coma could affect satellites.
Scientists have about two months before Siding Spring makes its closest approach on October 19. The potential problem will come as Mars passes through the comet’s coma for several hours.
How at risk are the satellites over Mars really? Not much, but any risk has to be taken seriously by scientists. They don’t want to not worry about it, and then millions of dollars worth of satellites end up being damaged.
Mars scientist Richard Zurke talked about the potential risk to satellites. “That’s like a cannonball for our spacecraft.” One piece from the comet’s coma would be enough to take out a satellite’s electronics or fuel line according to Zurek.
Bruce Jakosky, principal investigator for MAVEN at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado had this to Space.com. “The dust risk appears to be significantly less than had originally been thought when the comet was first discovered.”
So, what can scientists do if there is any risk? Scientists can alter the orbit of the satellites to position them away from any danger posed by Siding Spring. NASA is already planning on altering the orbit of its Mars Odyssey orbiter to get it out of the potential danger zone. NASA’s MAVEN satellite is having its flight path altered slightly after it reaches Mars on September 21.
As for the rovers on the ground, Mars’ atmosphere should be enough to protect them. Here’s an image provided by NASA showing Siding Spring’s orbit.