Even a near miss is a potentially big event. The latest orbit solutions put the comet somewhere within 300,000 km of the red planet at closest approach. That means Mars could find itself inside the comet's gassy, dusty atmosphere or "coma." Visually, the comet would reach 0th magnitude, that is, a few times brighter than a 1st magnitude star, as seen from the Red Planet.
"Cameras on ALL of NASA's spacecraft currently operating at Mars should be able to take photographs of Comet 2013 A1," says Jim Bell, a planetary scientist and Mars imaging specialist at Arizona State University. "The issue with Mars Odyssey and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will be the ability to point them in the right direction; they are used to looking down, not up. Mission designers will have to figure out if that is possible."
"The issue with the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers will be power for imaging at night," he continues. "Opportunity is solar powered and so would need to dip into reserve battery power to operate the cameras at night. Whether or not we will be able to do this will depend on how much power the rover is getting from dusty solar panels in the daytime. On the other hand, Curiosity is nuclear powered, so it could have better odds at night-time imaging."
Researchers will be keenly interested to see how the comet's atmosphere interacts with the atmosphere of Mars. For one thing, there could be a meteor shower. "Analyzing the spectrum of disintegrating meteors could tell us something interesting about the chemistry of the upper atmosphere," notes Meyer.
Author: Dr. Tony Phillips | Production editor: Dr. Tony Phillips