Comet Siding Spring came extraordinarily close to Mars as it whizzed by on 19 October 2014. The celestial body – a mere 500 metres in diameter – passed the Red Planet at a distance of just 137 000 kilometres, where it was observed by several spacecraft in orbit around Mars. The High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC), operated by the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) on board ESA’s Mars Express, also acquired a series of images with its SRC channel during Mars Express orbit 13710.
As it flew by, Siding Spring was travelling at a velocity of around 56 kilometres per second relative to Mars. Images were acquired at 17-second intervals; the spatial resolution is 17 kilometres per pixel. The images show the comet nucleus as well as the surrounding dust and gas cloud (coma).
Comet Siding Spring originates from the Oort Cloud, a comet ‘reservoir’ in the outer reaches of the Solar System. The comet was named after the Australian Observatory at which it was originally discovered back in 2013, and has the scientific designation C/2013 A1. As comets approach the Sun, one or two tails composed of gas and dust or ionised gases form on the side facing away from the Sun. As it whizzed by the planet, Siding Spring’s tail penetrated the Martian atmosphere, where it was analysed by the particle detector ASPERA-3 on board Mars Express, among others.
Scientists hope to use the data acquired, as well as the spectrometer measurements conducted at the same time, to gain an insight into the comet’s composition. It is thought that comets may contain material dating back to the formation of the Solar System.