Comet Siding Spring won’t hit Mars on October 19 but it will come really, really close: 86,000 miles, or just a bit over 1/3 the distance between the Moon and Earth. That’s like having a bullet from a sniper positioned a mile away knock your hat off! (Given that you were the target of a military-class sniper, not sure why you would be. Is there something I don’t know about you?) And while it won’t get bright enough or close enough to Earth to become a spectacle in our night sky, exploration robots on and around Mars should be in for quite a show.
Earlier this month, as Siding Spring (aka C/2013 A1) passed within the orbit of Jupiter, the Hubble Space Telescope turned its gaze onto it and captured the image above showing the comet’s icy 12,000-mile-wide coma and, after some processing, what appear to be two strong jets spraying out of its as-yet-unseen nucleus. These observations — and more like them in the months to come — will help scientists determine Siding Spring’s motion and rotation rate and what sort of interaction Mars (and its resident robots) can expect from its ejected material this fall.