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Hubble spots comet heading toward Mars, spewing space dust

Astronomy and AstrophysicsJet Propulsion LaboratoryNASA
Sliding Spring will make its closest approach to the Red Planet on Oct. 19.
The comet will pass within 84,000 miles of Mars. That's half the distance between the Earth and moon.

Hubble has spotted a comet named Sliding Spring spewing gas and dust into space as it zooms to a close encounter with Mars in October.

Researchers working with the Hubble Space Telescope recently released two images of the comet. The image on the left, captured March 11, shows what the Hubble saw. The one on the right has been resolved to reveal what appears to be two distinct jets shooting out of the comet's the icy nucleus.

Comet Sliding Spring began its journey to the sun 1 million years ago from the hypothesized, but never seen Oort cloud in the cold, outer reaches of our solar system. On Oct. 19, it will come within 84,000 miles from Mars — about half the distance between the Earth and the moon.

On Oct. 25, it will fly about 130 miles from the sun. Then it will fly away, possibly never to be seen again.

While microbial Martians that may or may not exist are in no danger from this comet, but some of the spacecraft that we have sent to Mars may be, according to researchers. 

"Our plans for using spacecraft at Mars to observe comet Siding Spring will be coordinated with plans for how the orbiters will duck and cover, if we need to do that," Rich Zurek, Mars Exploration Program chief scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge, said in a statement in January.

The researchers are not as concerned about the comet hitting spacecraft, but rather what effect contact with the dust grains in the comet's coma might have on sensitive instruments. 

"It could go either way," JPL's Soren Madsen, Mars Exploration Program chief engineer, said in a statement. "It could be a huge deal or it could be nothing — or anything in between."

Unfortunately for skywatchers, astronomers do not expect Sliding Spring to ever become a naked eye object — at least here on Earth.

If you love things that zoom through our solar system, follow me on Twitter for more like ths. 

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