Scientists from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) forecast that its Mars orbiter Odyssey could possibly be in danger of the high-velocity dust particles from the Red Planet's close brush with comet Siding Spring based on projections using computer models.
NASA made adjustments as far back as August so that the Odyssey would be protected from the potentially damaging dust particles in the tail of the comet, which came from a remote part of the Solar System called the Oort Cloud.
"The modeling predictions for comet Siding Spring suggest a dust particle impact would not be likely in any case, but this maneuver has given us an added protection," said Mars Odyssey Project Manager David Lehman. "Those dust particles will be traveling so fast that even one hit could end our mission."
Comet Siding Spring whizzed by Mars at a proximity of about 88,000 miles, a very short distance in astronomical terms, on Oct. 19. The distance between Mars and Siding Spring during the flyby is about 10 times closer than any comet is known to have zipped by the Earth.
While the event offered rare scientific opportunities, it also posed dangers to the spacecraft that were stationed in Mars, which include the U.S. space agency's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), the MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN), which reached the orbit of the Red Planet in September, and the Odyssey spacecraft, NASA's longest-lived Martian spacecraft.
On Oct. 19, NASA said that all three orbiters are in good health after they sheltered behind the safer side of Mars during the risky period of the flyby. The space agency also said that all three spacecraft, which were part of a campaign to study Siding Spring and its possible effects on the atmosphere of Mars, managed to gather data from the flyby.
Odyssey Mission Manager Chris Potts said that the telemetry they have received from Odyssey suggests the spacecraft performed the planned observations of Siding Spring using its Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS). NASA said that it expects the resulting images to become available in the coming days.
"Resulting images are expected in coming days after the data is downlinked to Earth and processed," NASA said. "THEMIS is also scheduled to record a combined image of the comet and a portion of Mars later this week."
The space agency also stated that the Odyssey mission is using the orbiter's Neutron Spectrometer and High Energy Neutron detector to study the potential impact of the comet's gas and dust on the Martian atmosphere.