NASA officials have chewed through the latest data from two NASA spacecraft and one European spacecraft, and have learned more about the comet Siding Spring’s composition and its effect on Mars’ atmosphere.
The MAVEN spacecraft, which entered Mars’ orbit just in time for the show, sampled some of the comet’s dust to determine its make-up. Eight different types of metal ions were detected including sodium, magnesium and iron – according to NASA officials. It was a landmark achievement for NASA. The first time direct measurements of the composition of dust from an Oort Cloud comet have been conducted.
Observations from MAVEN, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and the European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft revealed the debris from Siding Spring added an extremely strong layer of ions into Mars’ ionosphere. The impact of the comet on Mars’ atmosphere led to significant short-term changes, and longer-term effects can’t be ruled out according to NASA officials. All three spacecraft will continue to study Mars’ atmosphere in the coming weeks and months for any longer term effects caused by comet Siding Spring.
Sadly, the best show was seen by no one. Thousands of shooting stars per hour would have been visible if someone was there to see them. Instead, we get images that didn’t quite come out as well as officials had hoped. Still, the science done by the folks at NASA and other space agencies is invaluable.
Check out the short video below to see several images of Siding Spring.
As for the comet itself? Images from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s MRO suggest the comet’s nucleus is smaller than early estimates of 1.2 miles. You can see the blurry images below. Each pixel represents about 450 to 580 feet. The MRO was between 86,000 and 93,000 miles away from the comet when the series of images were captured.
The amount of dust and debris that hit Mars’ atmosphere was a bit more than expected. If NASA, along with other space agencies, didn’t move their orbiters – there might have been more than dust hitting the red planet’s atmosphere.
“Observing the effects on Mars of the comet’s dust slamming into the upper atmosphere makes me very happy that we decided to put our spacecraft on the other side of Mars at the peak of the dust tail passage and out of harm’s way,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division.
Image credits: Hubble Space Telescope (top), NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona (in content)