WASHINGTON (AFP) – A comet the size of a small mountain whizzed past Mars on Sunday, dazzling space enthusiasts with the once-in-a-million-years encounter.
The comet, known as Siding Spring (C/2013 A1), made its closest encounter with Mars on Sunday at 2:27 pm (1827 GMT), racing past the Red Planet at a breakneck 126,000 miles (203,000 kilometres) per hour.
At its closest, Siding Spring was 87,000 miles (139,500 kilometres) from Mars – about a third the distance between Earth and our moon.
Before the comet passed, it could be seen in space racing toward the brightly illuminated Red Planet, trailed by a cloud of debris.
Scientists said the comet’s passing offered a unique chance to study its impact on Mars’s atmosphere.
“What could be more exciting than to have a whopper of an external influence like a comet, just so we can see how atmospheres do respond?” asked Nick Schneider, the remote sensing team leader from NASA’s MAVEN mission to Mars.
“It’s a great learning opportunity.”
NASA’s fleet of Mars-orbiting satellites and robots on the planet’s surface were primed for the flyby of the comet, hoping to capture the rare event and collect a trove of data for Earthlings to study.
MAVEN, NASA’s latest Mars orbiter, reported back to Earth in “good health” after spending about three hours ducking a possible collision with the comet’s high-velocity dust particles, the US space agency said.