Bengaluru: For a couple of hours beginning midnight of Sunday, Mangalyaan will shift its gaze away from Mars and peer at a rare celestial visitor – Siding Spring – during a close encounter with the comet which could turn out some exciting facts about the solar system and origin of life.
This comet will rush past Mars at an extraordinary speed of about 1,000 km a minute, and therefore, be “visible” to Mangalyaan from close quarters for about four hours that night.
Ahead of this unique opportunity to scan Siding Spring, scientists have tweaked Mangalyaan’s orbit around Mars so that it would be at a safe distance from the comet’s dust trail, but close enough for its instruments to pick up evidence on the presence of Methane and water vapour in the head and tail regions of the comet.
“We cannot speculate what the outcome of this encounter could be, but we certainly have an opportunity to look at the comet up close as it approaches Mars at a tenth of the distance of any comet which has passed by the earth,” Prof. U. R. Rao, former Chairman of ISRO, and head of the Advisory Committee on Space Sciences, told Deccan Chronicle.
Prof Rao, who chose five instruments for Mangalyaan and has been guiding space scientists on studies to be carried out during the comet’s fly-past, chaired a meeting with principal investigators from several facilities of ISRO here on Monday. “We will have a detailed plan in place for this rare encounter in a couple of days.
All the five instruments onboard MOM (Mars Orbiter Mission) have been tested and calibrated thrice since it entered the orbit (on September 24). So, we will have some data on the comet first before we commence our observations of Mars,” he added.
Besides MOM, scientists at Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), Ahmedabad, and Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIA), Bengaluru, will study comet Siding Spring through telescopes from October 17.