A comet is hurtling its way towards Mars and will come just 140,000 km from hitting the red planet – about one-third of the moon’s distance from Earth.
The comet, known as Siding Spring, will pass by Mars on October 19, travelling at a speed of 34 miles per second.
To study this close shave, the largest fleet of orbiting scientific observatories ever flown to another world has been assembled. These instruments – from on board NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) – will, for the first time ever, offer the chance to conduct a close-up study of a comet new to the inner solar system.
"The close fly-by of Mars by Comet Siding Spring is unique, unexpected, and lucky for us," said space scientist David Humm in a statement.
The equipment that will be used to observe the comet includes the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM), the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE), and the Context Imager (CTX).
Both a spectrometer and a camera, CRISM can identify molecules and minerals by light, allowing scientists to create images of any material they identify. It was developed by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, where Humm serves as a senior staff scientist.
"If we're fortunate, CRISM will be able to detect some features in the comet gas and dust, and we can make images of the distribution of different gases detected and learn something about the nature of the dust," said Humm.
Siding Spring is an Oort Cloud comet consisting of material left over from the formation of the solar system.
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Mars image via Shutterstock