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Siding Spring Mars flyby lights up Martian sky (and we nearly missed the show)

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The flyby of comet Siding Spring very close to planet Mars last month has produced an incredible cosmic display that was unfortunately directly seen only by the rovers and spacecraft on the Red Planet.

These instruments were strategically located to observe the phenomenon scientists have described to be a once-in-a-million-years occurrence.

On Nov. 7, scientists from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) said that Siding Spring's flyby on the Red Planet has resulted in thousands of shooting stars appearing per hour in the Martian skies.

The meteor shower is attributed to the dust from the mountain-sized comet that impacted the planet and was vaporized high in the atmosphere.

Just like what happens with meteors when they reach the Earth's atmosphere, these dust particles burn up as they go down, producing what was likely a brilliant light show in the Martian sky.

The skies of the Red Planet must have taken a yellowish hue at twilight due to the sodium in the vaporized comet dust producing a glow. This looked similar to those emitted by sodium vapor lights used for lighting up parking lots on Earth.

"To see (that) many shooting stars happening at once, I think it would have been really mind-blowing," said planetary scientist Nick Schneider from the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Scientists who were studying the event when Siding Spring sailed by Mars on Oct. 19 said that they were surprised at the amount of dust that the comet brought down on the Red Planet and felt relieved they made the necessary precautions to protect the spacecraft conducting observations of Mars.

"Observing the effects on Mars of the comet's dust slamming into the upper atmosphere makes me very happy that we decided to put our spacecraft on the other side of Mars at the peak of the dust tail passage and out of harm's way," said NASA's Planetary Science Division director Jim Green.

The U.S. space agency said that the debris caused significant temporary changes to the upper atmosphere of Mars and potentially more longer-lasting perturbations.

Observations made by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) as well as an instrument on the European Space Agency's Mars Express spacecraft revealed that there were significant changes on the upper atmosphere of Mars after the flyby. This includes the addition of a new layer of charged particles and chemical fingerprints of metals, such as magnesium and iron, which were shed by the comet.

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