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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.