NASA’s newest Mars probe – the en route Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution spacecraft, or MAVEN – faces a close encounter with comet particles. Courtesy: Lockheed Martin

NASA’s newest Mars probe – the en route Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution spacecraft, or MAVEN – faces a close encounter with comet particles.
Courtesy: Lockheed Martin

Comet Siding Spring will make a very close approach to Mars this October.

That comet flyby comes just four weeks after NASA’s newest and now en route Mars probe – the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN spacecraft, or MAVEN – nudges into orbit around the Red Planet.

Researchers are busy examining the dust risk to the Mars probe given particles that will spew from comet Siding Spring.

“We are concerned about the risk, and have been identifying mitigations that we can take in order to minimize the potential impact on MAVEN,” said MAVEN principal investigator, Bruce Jakosky, of the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Before and after looks

Jakosky told me that a group led by Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s (JPL) Mars Program Office is examining the dust risk. They have not yet finalized their report and recommendations.

“We have a plan and schedule to complete the analysis and make preliminary decisions in June,” Jakosky advised. Also being examined is the potential to make observations of both the comet and of Mars at the time of the comet’s closest approach. 

“The interest in the comet should be obvious. But we’re also interested in before and after looks at Mars, given that the dust and gas has the potential to affect the upper atmosphere that is the centerpiece of our science,” Jakosky said.

Comet flyby of Mars in October should offer a spectacular view from the Martian surface.  Credit: Kim Poor

Comet flyby of Mars in October should offer a spectacular view from the Martian surface.
Credit: Kim Poor

Bottom line

“We’ve identified possible observations, and are in the midst of working through the implications for our transition phase [once MAVEN is in Mars orbit] and for the observations,” Jakosky said. “Again, no decisions have been made, and we expect preliminary decisions to be made hand in hand with our mitigations,” he added.

For Jakosky there is a bottom line in all the MAVEN versus comet Siding Spring deliberations.

“In all of our analysis, spacecraft and instrument health and safety come first. We won’t take any actions that we believe jeopardize our own science mission,” he concluded.

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