Space & Innovation

Comet Siding Spring Whizzes Past Mars

A comet the size of a small mountain and about as solid as a pile of talcum powder whizzed past Mars.

A comet the size of a small mountain and about as solid as a pile of talcum powder whizzed past Mars, dazzling space enthusiasts with the once-in-a-million-years encounter.

The comet, known as Siding Spring, made its closest encounter with the Red Planet at 2:27 p.m. EDT on Sunday, racing past it at a breakneck 126,000 miles per hour.

At its closest, Siding Spring was 140,000 kilometers (86,992 miles) from Mars -- a near miss by astronomers' standards.

Why a Mars Comet Impact Would be Awesome

Before the comet buzzed Mars, it could be seen in space racing toward the brightly illuminated planet trailed by a cloud of debris.

Scientists said the passing of the comet -- also known as C/2013 A1 and about a mile wide -- offered a unique chance to study its impact on Mars's atmosphere.

"What could be more exciting than to have a whopper of an external influence like a comet, just so we can see how atmospheres do respond?" asked Nick Schneider, the remote sensing team leader from NASA's MAVEN mission to Mars.

"It's a great learning opportunity."

NASA's fleet of Mars-orbiting satellites and robots on the planet's surface were primed for the flyby, hoping to capture the rare event and collect a trove of data for Earthlings to study.

MAVEN, NASA's latest Mars orbiter, reported back to Earth in "good health" after spending about three hours ducking a possible collision with the comet's high-velocity dust particles, the US space agency said.

"We're glad the spacecraft came through, we're excited to complete our observations of how the comet affects Mars, and we're eager to get to our primary science phase," said MAVEN principal investigator Bruce Jakosky.

"Mars Odyssey hard at work now to image #MarsComet Siding Spring, after closest approach & before dust tail hits," NASA said on Twitter, referring to one of its robotic spacecraft.

Photos: Russian Meteor Strike Aftermath

The comet -- a ball of ice, dust and pebbles -- is believed to have originated billions of years ago in the Oort Cloud, a distant region of space at the outskirts of the solar system.

As it hurtled through space it created a meteor shower and shed debris which scientists had feared could damage valuable spacecraft.

"All it takes is a little tiny grain of sand traveling at that speed and you've got damage to solar arrays, or your propulsion line or critical wires," said Schneider.

Before the comet entered the Red Planet's orbit, NASA moved its Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Odyssey and MAVEN to avoid damage by the comet's high-speed debris.

All three orbiters later reported back with a clean bill of health after taking shelter behind Mars, NASA said.

The comet traveled more than one million years to take its first pass by Mars, and will not return for another million years, after it completes its next long loop around the sun.

The comet was discovered by Robert McNaught at Australia's Siding Spring Observatory in January 2013.

Its flyby of Mars was not likely to be visible to sky watchers on Earth.

The Martian surface is peppered with impact craters of all shapes, sizes and ages. However, many of the craters are just plain weird.

But just how 'weird' is weird?

Curious, Discovery News asked the High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) team which craters they considered to be the strangest. HiRISE is the most advanced camera to be put into Mars orbit. It is attached to NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and currently snapping features on the Red Planet's surface -- it has seen a ton of strange objects (sadly, it hasn't found a top secret military base yet, despite what you may have heard to the contrary). So, let's take a tour of some of the weirdest craters Mars has on offer...

Special thanks to Ari Espinoza of the HiRISE team for helping to compile this list (originally published Dec. 30, 2011. Updated May 7, 2013)

Crater, Horst and Graben: Is that a piece of modern art? Actually, it's an impact crater that has been bent and twisted by tectonic processes. Along the fault line that crosses this crater, blocks of rock are forced upward (called "horst") and downward (called "graben"). This is interesting to planetary scientists as it shows that tectonic activity was occurring after the crater was formed.

Rolling Stones Logo? If you squint and use a little imagination, you may see the Rolling Stones' logo. Well, that's what the HiRISE team told us anyway. (I'm still squinting...) In reality, it's an impact crater on a sloping surface. Presumably, the "tongue" of material is slipping down the slope.

Bulls-Eye Impact? Did a small meteorite have the incredible fortune to slam into the center of a larger impact crater? Probably not.

This is one of several examples of "terraced" craters where alternating layers of hard and soft material in the surface layers of the Martian surface have been hit by a single meteorite. The result is a concentric nesting of ridges inside the same crater. Pretty!

What the...? What's the weirdest kind of impact crater? The kind that may not be an impact crater at all (but looks like one). On the slopes of Pavonis Mons, one of Mars' shield volcanoes, this crater has a hole in the middle. The hole is a "skylight," or the collapsed roof of a subterranean lava tube. The loose material above the collapsed roof appears to have slumped into the skylight, creating a crater lookalike. But what caused the roof of the lava tube to collapse? Could a meteorite be to blame? No idea, but HiRISE will be taking some more photos of this little oddity to find out.

Two-for-One Crater Special: What could be worse than a meteorite hitting you? Two meteorites hitting you... at the same time! Yes, that's exactly what happened here. It seems highly likely that one object tumbled through the Martian atmosphere and split in two. In doing so, the two halves impacted in the same location. As can be seen from this example, both halves were likely the same size, producing a rather satisfying imprint.

Another Double-Whammy: Looks like double-impacts are becoming a trend! This time, in addition to the two co-joined impact craters, HiRISE has picked out the rays that are produced when space rocks slam into the Martian surface.

Hit Me Baby Three More Times? It may seem hard to believe, but Mars also has triple-impact craters! It stands to reason that after countless impacts, you might get the occasional meteorite that splits into three when blasting through the atmosphere. So here you have it, a triple-impact crater.

A Triple Ricochet Crater: Another three (likely simultaneous) impacts, only this time their craters are elongated. This suggests the meteorites hit the surface at an oblique angle.

A Simple Blemish: In an apparently featureless plain in the north polar region, a single, small crater appears as the only blemish. Looking closely, the crater seems to be filled with ice.

Bubbly Landscape: This cluster of impact craters in the northern plains of Utopia Planitia contain strange uplift features likely caused by ground ice upheaval.

Crater of Mud: The strange concentric rings inside this crater near the Martian volcano Elysium Mons are thought to be the ancient remnants of a mud flow. Therefore, it is believed this crater wasn't caused by an impact from space, but by material flowing away from under the surface. The crater was then formed as the material above slumped.

Cracked Cookie Crater? There's an odd pair of craters in Hrad Vallis that the HiRISE website describe as a "pair of odd craters." Why so... odd? Well, to me, the larger crater looks like a cracked cookie, probably crevasses and faults carved across its diameter.

The Crater with a Robot Visitor: What makes this crater weird? Well, it's not the crater, it's the little man-made robot that's parked on the crater's western rim that makes this scene weirdly awesome. It's even weirder to think that a robot in Mars orbit has taken a photo of another robot on the Martian surface a couple of hundred miles below. Robots looking out for robots on alien worlds...

This is of course NASA's tenacious Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity that keeps exploring the Martian surface since exceeding its primary mission duration of 3 months back in 2004. Opportunity now has company on the Martian surface -- on Aug. 5, 2012, the nuclear-powered Curiosity landed inside Gale Crater to look for clues behind the habitability of the red planet.

In March 2013, HiRISE spotted a series of non-impact craters in Acidalia Planitia. These may not be impact craters, but they are unlike any other crater discovered on Mars to date! So the process behind their formation will remain a mystery... for now.