Comet Siding Springs approaches Mars

Astronomers around the world are getting to watch an amazing event tomorrow — a very close flyby of Mars by Comet Siding Spring.  Normally, this would be just a curiosity (since astronomers have ruled out the possibility of a collision) but this is a very fortuitous time for the encounter — two ground vehicles (Opportunity and Curiosity) and five orbiters (Mars Odyssey 2001, Mars Express, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, MAVEN, and Mangalyaan/Mars Orbiter Mission) are all ready to observe.  MAVEN is particularly fortuitous; it’s specialized for atmospheric observations, which makes it unusually well-equipped for this chance encounter with a comet’s tail.

Because yes, Mars is expected to pass through the comet’s tail.  It’s pretty awesome, and the view from Curiosity in particular should be spectacular.  (Curiosity is better equipped for night viewing, since it is nuclear powered and doesn’t need to conserve its batteries overnight.)  NASA’s GSFC has released this video highlighting the experience:

It won’t just be the seven vehicles at Mars observing the comet.  Other instruments, including the Hubble Space Telescope and STEREO-A, will also be watching, as will ground-based observers here on Earth.  Amateurs with larger telescopes (8″ or better) and favorable weather will be able to follow the comet as it approaches and passes the red planet.

I can’t wait to see the pictures.  😉

And if that weren’t exciting enough, the Orionids are starting up.  That’s debris from Comet Halley, and it will peak in a few days.  And on Thursday, many of us in North America (not all, alas) will be treated to a very nice partial solar eclipse.  It’s a good week!

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