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Scientists will get a close-up look at a Comet, from Mars

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(LPAC)—On October 19, when comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring whisks past Mars at a hair’s breath distance of 82,000 miles, three spacecraft orbiting Mars, and two on the ground, will be giving scientists a very close, and possibly in situ study of a pristine comet that is making its first trip toward the Sun and in to the inner Solar System. NASA has started a series of orbital manoeuvres in order to take the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and Mar Odyssey orbiter out of the path of a potentially damaging trail of debris from the comet’s defrosting nucleus. A third orbiter which is on its way to Mars, called Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN), will arrive at the red planet about a month before the comet does, and will be positioned to be out of harm’s way. All three of the orbiters will be positioned on the opposite side of Mars when the comet is most likely to pass by, but they will all be taking measurements during the flyby.

MAVEN, NASA reports, will study the gases coming off the comet’s nucleus as they come in to its coma as it warms. It will also note the effects on the upper atmosphere of Mars, which is that spacecraft’s mission assignment. Odyssey will study the thermal and spectral properties of the coma and tail. Atmospheric temperature increases and cloud formation, and changes in electron density, will be measured by MRO. It is expected that while the atmosphere of Mars is much thinner than Earth’s it will protect rovers Opportunity and Curiosity from any cometary dust particles that enter the atmosphere. The rovers may use their cameras to observe the flyby, and see if there are meteors visible when the trail of comet dust is closest to the planet.