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.