Spectacular Meteor Storm Lights Up Mars During Recent Comet Flyby

On October 19, when Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring flew just 87,000 miles from Mars, dust from its tail set the sky aglow with a meteor storm. This illustration is my feeble attempt to show what you might have seen standing on Mars next to the Curiosity rover at the time. Credit: NASA (background) with additions and changes by Bob King

Oh, to have stood under the Martian sky on October 19th! As Comet Siding Spring passed just 87,000 miles (140,000 km) from the planet that night, dust in its tail slammed into the Martian atmosphere at 126,000 mph, burning up in storm of meteoric madness. “Thousands per hour fell,” said Nick Schneider, instrument lead for NASA’s MAVEN Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph. It must have looked like those classic illustrations of the 1833 and 1866 Leonid meteor storm back here on Earth.

Composite image of Comet Siding Spring and Mars taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. The images have been added together to create a single picture to illustrate the true distance or separation (1/20th the apparent size of the Full Moon) between the comet and Mars at closest approach.  Credit: NASA/ESA

I participated in a teleconference yesterday with principal investigators for the instruments on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), MAVEN and Mars Express spacecraft pressed into service to study Comet Siding Spring during its historic flyby. The comet is a visitor from the faraway Oort Cloud, a spherical repository of billions of icy comets up to 1 light year from the Sun. Some 4-5 Oort Cloud comets swing through the inner solar system every year; this is the first one we’ve ever studied up close. It was discovered at Siding Spring Observatory in Australia by Robert McNaught on January 13, 2013.

NASA’s MAVEN uses its IUVS to perform a scan of the Martian atmosphere along its limb. Scans found enhanced levels of metals from vaporizing comet dust. Credit: NASA

“Dust slammed into the atmosphere and changed the chemistry of the upper atmosphere,” said Jim Green, director, Planetary Science Division, NASA Headquarters in Washington. Data from MAVEN’s UltraViolet Spectrograph (IUVS), which scans of Mars’ upper atmosphere in UV light to determine its chemical makeup, saw big spikes in the amount of magnesium and iron during the flyby. These elements are commonly found in meteorites.

Before and after scans by MAVEN. At left is a profile of the atmosphere before the comet’s arrival showing carbon dioxide and other gases; at right is during the comet’s pass. Check out that huge spike to the right – that from magnesium. Elevated levels to the left indicate iron. Credit: NASA

Siding Spring turned out to be much dustier than expected, prompting Green to later add: “It makes me very happy hid them (spacecraft) on the backside of Mars.” “It really saved them. Even one well-placed hit from a high-speed dust particle could damage an instrument, and Siding Spring peppered the Martian atmosphere with “several tons” of dust.

MAVEN used its mass spectrometer – an instrument that identifies elements by how much mass they have – to record a big enhancement of the elements magnesium, manganese, iron and others from comet dust in Mars’ atmosphere. Credit: NASA

Meanwhile, MAVEN’s Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer (NGIMS), picked up major spikes in 8 different metals from ablating comet dust including sodium, magnesium, iron and nickel. Jim Green pointed out that the increase in sodium may have tinged the twilight sky with a yellow glow. That and a recent increase in the amount of dust in the atmosphere over the Curiosity rover site may be the reason the comet was so difficult to photograph from the ground.

Only hours after Comet Siding Spring’s closest approach, dust particles hitting air molecules on Mars formed a temporary ionized (electrified) layer in its lower ionosphere 50-60 miles high. Credit: ESA

So we have a very dusty comet, a big meteor storm, the atmosphere spiced up with metals from burning dust.

Anything else? Heck, yes. The European Space Agency’s Mars Express Orbiter used its radar to send out radio waves of very low frequency down through Mars atmosphere to record the state of the ionosphere, a rarified layer of air between 60-250 miles (100-400 km) high. At the comet’s closest approach, the ionosphere was normal, but 7 hours later, impacting dust had created a brand new, temporary ionization layer.

Close-ups pictures taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter of Comet Siding Spring around the time of closest approach to Mars. They show the combined light of the tiny nucleus and much larger coma or comet atmosphere. Comet dust / rocks range in size from 1/1000 of a millimeter to 1 centimeter (~1/2-inch). Credit: NASA

The high resolution camera on the MRO photographed brightness variations in the comet’s light, nailing down its rotation period to 8 hours. But size-wise, we’re a little less clear. Estimates for the comet’s nucleus range from 984 feet to 1.2 miles (300-m to 2 km). For comparison, Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, currently orbited by Europe’s Rosetta spacecraft, is 1.5 miles (2.4 km) across.

Color variations in this photo by CRISM indicate different sized dust particles being ejected by the comet. Credit: NASA

Yet another instrument named CRISM (Compact Reconnaissance Spectrometer for Mars) made some intriguing measurements of the coma showing distinct differences in color – red here, blue there – indicating the comet is blowing out dust particles of different sizes.

As scientists continue to analyze the data collected by the fleet of space probes, we’ll see more papers and results soon. For now, the rare opportunity to study a comet up close from another planet was an unqualified success. You can listen to the replay of the hour-long conference HERE.

6 Responses

  1. Edward M. Boll

    OK, I want to know 2 things, 1, how bright the comet could have been seen on Mars, and 2, how many meteors approximately could have been seen in the Martian sky in 1 hour at greatest activity.

    1. astrobob

      I was in line with exactly your first question during the teleconference but the question period was so brief I didn’t get a chance to ask. As for your other question, the one of the researchers said “thousands per hour”.

  2. Yuksel Kenaroglu

    To be honest, Siding Spring (SS) visit was not as magnificient as advertised.
    It was started arguing that SS would collide with Mars… After a couple weeks, it was said that SS would pass Mars very close… We excepted that the image of SS would cover almost half of the Mars sky… SS was not visible clearly, in the rover images…! After whole discoveries (I exlude discoveries in this article) from SS (passing) I believe that, astronomers need to be more sensitive before declaring new discoveries…
    Last word: Nobody explained (in an article) so far how Mars orbiters were hidden behind the Mars while SS passing…!

    1. astrobob

      The possibility for a collision was only very early before the orbit was refined. Very soon we knew it would pass close to the planet but not impact. I never saw it said the comet would cover half the sky – maybe that was tail length. Astronomers were correct that the tail might create a meteor storm, which did happen based on the big increase in metals in the atmosphere. The cameras on Opportunity weren’t intended for night sky pictures, so getting anything at all was amazing (although like you, I’m underwhelmed). The other discoveries aren’t Earth shattering (yet), but they are teaching us a lot about the comet. MAVEN takes 35 hours to orbit Mars; MRO and Mars Odyssey take about 2 hours to orbit. They were maneuvered so that all were on the opposite side of Mars from the comet for ~1/2 hour after closest approach when the danger from dust was greatest.
      Remember, these spacecraft weren’t sent on a mission to study the comet. Considering that, the scientists deserve high praise for figuring out ways to use the spacecraft to take advantage of an exceptional opportunity and also to prevent them from getting sandblasted by dust. Impressive feats!

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