Last month, a comet called Siding Spring, or as it is more formally known, Comet C/2013 A1, flew very close to Mars, dumping several tons of primordial dust into the thin atmosphere of the planet.
I really believe that hiding them like that really saved them, and it gave us a fabulous opportunity to make these observations […] We believe this type of event occurs once every eight million years or so, so it is indeed a rare opportunity for us to observe this.Jim Green
It created a brief meteor shower, with thousands of shooting starts going by every hour. However, to the nearby international fleet of spacecrafts in orbit, it posed a threat. Engineers then decided to maneuver their orbits, taking them to the far side of Mars while the comet was close approaching. This, it seems, was a smart choice.
Jim Green, the director of planetary science at NASA, says: “After observing the effects on Mars and how the comet dust slammed into the upper atmosphere, it 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.”
The comet originated in the Oort Cloud, a vast realm of icy relics the was left over from the birth of the solar system, about 4.6 billion years ago. The Oort Cloud extends from beyond the orbit of Pluto, halfway to the nearest star.
This was comet’s Siding Spring’s first journey into the inner solar system, one that began about a million or more years ago, when the gravity of the passing star maybe nudged it into a different trajectory.
“I really believe that hiding them like that really saved them, and it gave us a fabulous opportunity to make these observations […] We believe this type of event occurs once every eight million years or so, so it is indeed a rare opportunity for us to observe this.” – says Jim Green.
These kinds of meteor showers with more than one thousand shooting stars per hour are very rare on Earth, so there really must have been a sight to behold on the surface of planet Mars.
This archive content was originally published November 9, 2014 (www.betawired.com)