NASA's Mars Odyssey, which has been orbiting planet Mars since October 2011, has witnessed what scientists hailed as a once in a million year phenomenon, the flyby of a mountain-sized comet very close to the Red Planet.
The comet C/2013 A1, also known as Siding Spring, came from one of the most remote parts of the solar system, the Oort Cloud, and is believed to have been formed during the early periods of the solar system. Siding Spring sped within approximately 88,000 miles of Mars on Sunday, Oct. 19 in what space scientists described to be a rare phenomenon.
The proximity between Mars and the comet as it flew by is about the same as the distance between the Earth and the moon. It may appear distant enough but it is equivalent to a hair's breadth in astronomical terms. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), as well as the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) had to make the necessary adjustments to their spacecraft stationed in the orbit of the Red Planet to ensure they are out of harm's way.
NASA's Odyssey took cover from possible comet dust behind a safer side of Mars but it did gather some data as Siding Spring zipped near the Red Planet. The spacecraft made some orbital adjustments in August so it would be sheltered from possible damage caused by the flyby. Computer models have projected the spacecraft to be slightly in danger because of the dust particles in Siding Spring's tail.
As planned, the robotic spacecraft did not communicate with Earth while conducting observations of the approaching comet, but data received from Odyssey later on confirmed that the spacecraft did not just collected information, it was also fine.
"The telemetry received from Odyssey this afternoon confirms not only that the spacecraft is in fine health but also that it conducted the planned observations of comet Siding Spring within hours of the comet's closest approach to Mars," said Chris Potts, the Mission Manager of Odyssey from the U.S space agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.
The Thermal Emission Imaging System, or THEMIS, of the orbiter made the observations of comet Siding Spring and the images will become available after the data are downlinked and processed on Earth.
The Odyssey is the longest-running Mars mission in history. The spacecraft was launched on April 7, 2001 and made it to the Red Planet's orbit in Oct. 24 of that year.