Mars orbiter snaps close up of comet Siding Spring

comet Siding Spring

Images of Siding Spring show the comet's nucleus and surrounding haze (left). This hazy outer coma is brightened in the image at the right, saturating the comet's core.

University of Arizona/JPL/NASA

For the first time, astronomers have gotten a close look at the core of a comet from the Oort cloud.

On October 19, comet Siding Spring whizzed within 138,000 kilometers of NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, putting the spacecraft in a perfect position to snap images of the comet. NASA’s Opportunity rover has also beamed back its view of Siding Spring from the surface of the Red Planet.

Because of the speed of the icy boulder and its distance from the MRO, the images aren’t as crisp as those taken by Rosetta at 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which was born in the Kuiper belt. But the fuzzy dots seen in the Mars orbiter images do give hints that Siding Spring’s cometary core is small, only 0.5 kilometers across. The new images are also the first of the core of a comet that takes longer than 200 years to orbit the sun.

Ashley Yeager is the associate news editor at Science News. She has worked at The Scientist, the Simons Foundation, Duke University and the W.M. Keck Observatory, and was the web producer for Science News from 2013 to 2015. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and a master’s degree in science writing from MIT.

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