It’s now a week since Siding Spring passed by Mars as it hurtled through the inner solar system for what might be the very first time. As I reported on the day of the comet’s flyby, C/2013 A1 – to give the comet its official designation – passed by Mars at a distance of around 136,000km (85,000 miles) and at a speed of some 56 kilometres (35 miles) per second. Since then, the comet reached perihelion – the point of its closest approach to the Sun (Saturday, October 25th, 2014), and it is now on its way back out of the solar system, travelling “up” and out of the plane of the ecliptic as it does so.
It will not be back this way for at least a million years.
Despite some getting their knickers in something of a knot over video footage apparently showing an “explosion”/ “electromagnetic pulse” in the Martian atmosphere around the time of the comet’s closest approach to Mars. In particular, the video footage – some 75 images captured by amateur astronomer Fritz Helmut Hemmerich M.D., captured between 21:00 and 22:00 UT on October 19th, from an altitude of some 1200 metres in Tenerife, have had proponents of the “electric universe” theory (aka Plasma Cosmology) in something of a tizzy.
Quite what caused the artefact in Dr. Hemmerich’s images is unclear – but lens flare cannot be entirely ruled-out. Given that within hours of the comment’s passage the various orbital vehicles around Mars started popping-up and reporting their status, it would appear highly unlikely that the artefact was anything to do with some kind of massive electrical discharge within the Martian atmosphere, simply because it is not unreasonable to suppose had this been the case, it would have adversely affected at least some of the craft.
As it is, all of NASA’s vehicles reported absolutely no ill effects from the comet’s passage or as a result of the period of “peak dust flux” when they were expected to be at the greatest risk from the passage of very high velocity dust particles (travelling at tens of kilometres per second), and all were back in full operation within hours of the comet’s passage past Mars, as were both India’s MOM and Europe’s Mars Express. NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) in particular remained in contact with Earth throughout the time the comet passed by Mars and reported nothing to suggest the Tenerife images were showing anything of major significance occurring around Mars at the time of the flyby.
Currently, all of NASA’s orbital assets are continuing to study the comet and how dust and debris ejected from it has affected the Martian atmosphere, although it is expected to be several more days before the data being returned has been analysed and assessed.
In the meantime, on Friday, October 24th, and in a timely move, the European Space Agency reminded the world of another cometary encounter that is taking place. This was via the public premier of Ambition, a short film by Tomek Bagiński, starring Aidan Gillen (“Petyr Baelish” in Game of Thrones) and Aisling Franciosi (“Katie” in The Fall).
The film takes a unique look at the decade-long Rosetta mission, which is only now commencing its primary mission to observe a comet at very close quarters, including landing a robot vehicle on the surface of the comet on November 12th, 2014.