The passage of a comet, Siding Spring, will be the first astronomical event that the Indian Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) spacecraft or “Mangalyaan” will encounter once it reaches the red planet next month. The comet that is scheduled to fly past the red planet on October 19 could pose a potential threat to the survival of the orbiter. “After the spacecraft is captured in the Mars’ orbit, we will encounter the Siding Spring comet that will engulf Mars in October,” said A S Kiran Kumar, director, Space Applications Centre, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) while talking about the spacecraft that is scheduled to enter the orbit of Mars on September 24.
In a spectacular event on October 19, the MOM will encounter comet Siding Spring, that will come closer to the Red planet than any recorded comet has ever passed the Earth. The comet was discovered in 2013 by Robert H McNaught at Siding Spring Observatory. The MOM will be using the instruments onboard to observe the Siding Spring’s passage and its effects on the Martian atmosphere which is much thinner than Earth.
When asked if the comet’s rendezvous with the red planet was a cause of concern for the Indian spacecraft’s survival, Kumar said, “It is one of the events. We are looking if we can take advantage of this opportunity and study the comet.”
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But there definitely seems to be a case of worry as NASA is already taking steps to protect its own orbiters and rovers on the red planet.
“The comet’s nucleus will miss Mars by about 82,000 miles (132,000 kilometers), shedding material hurtling at about 35 miles (56 kilometers) per second. At that velocity, even the smallest particle – estimated to be about one-fiftieth of an inch (half a millimeter) across – could cause significant damage to a spacecraft,” states a recent press release by American space agency whose Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft will enter the Mars’ orbit on September 21, a few days ahead of ISRO’s MOM.
“MAVEN will study gases coming off the comet’s nucleus into its coma as it is warmed by the sun. MAVEN will also look for effects the comet flyby may have on the planet’s upper atmosphere and observe the comet as it travels through the solar wind,” states the NASA’s release, adding that the NASA was repositioning its Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odyssey orbiter. It, however, does not expect any “hazard” from the comet to Opportunity and Curiosity rovers positioned on the planet’s surface.