Newly spotted comet to buzz Mars in 2014



Lisa Grossman, physical sciences reporter

mars-sunset-comet.jpg


A Martian sunset, as seen by NASA's Spirit rover in 2005.
(Image: Mars Exploration Rover Mission, Texas A&M, Cornell, JPL, NASA)


There's a new comet in town, and it is making a beeline for Mars. If projections of its orbit are correct, the icy visitor will buzz the Red Planet in October 2014.


Dubbed C/2013 A1, the comet was discovered on 3 January by prolific comet hunter Robert McNaught at Siding Spring Observatory in New South Wales, Australia. Colleagues at the Catalina Sky Survey in Arizona found images of the comet in their catalogue that date back to 8 December 2012, giving additional information about its movements.





These observations allowed astronomers to trace the comet's likely path around the sun. The calculated trajectory has C/2013 A1 crossing Mars' orbit on 19 October 2014, according to Australian blogger Ian Musgrave.


That doesn't necessarily mean a collision will occur. The best estimates right now have the comet passing a safe distance of 900,000 kilometres from the Martian surface. Asteroid 2012 DA14 got much closer to Earth last week, skimming by at a distance of 34,400 kilometres. But with so little data in hand, the calculations are not precise. It's possible the comet will miss Mars by as much as 36 million kilometres - or it could smack right into the planet. "An impact can't be ruled out at this stage," Musgrave wrote.


From Earth, we should be able to see the comet and Mars sitting side by side through small telescopes. And from Mars, the comet could be as spectacular as the expected "supercomet" ISON, which will come into view this year and could outshine the full moon.


Assuming the comet's orbit brings it close enough - but not too close - to Mars, the object should be visible either by rovers on the surface or the armada of Mars-orbiting satellites, which have a history of snapping spectacular shots of the Red Planet and its neighborhood.




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