The NASA MAVEN documented the temporary but profound effects of the comet flying by Mars in October 2014.
In October 2014 the massive comet C/2013 A1 also known as Siding Spring flew by Mars. The historic encounter was fortunately documented by the NASA MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution).
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The MAVEN spacecraft entered Mars orbit a little before the comet flew by. In order to protect sensitive equipment aboard MAVEN, some instruments were turned off. A few such as the MAVEN's magnetometer remained on.
The comet's passing wreaked the magnetic environment or the magnetosphere around Mars. The temporary but profound effect was documented by the MAVEN.
Mars does not have a strong magnetosphere generated within the planet like Earth. At very high altitudes Mars' atmosphere is made up of plasma. The plasma is made up of a layer of electrically charged particles and gas molecules. They create a weak magnetic field around Mars.
"Comet Siding Spring plunged the magnetic field around Mars into chaos," said Jared Espley, a MAVEN science team member at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
"We think the encounter blew away part of Mars' upper atmosphere, much like a strong solar storm would."
The comet Siding Spring is also surrounded by a magnetic field. The core of Siding Spring is a nugget of ice and rock but it has a coma surrounding it. The coma is an envelope of gas flowing from a comet's nucleus.
The magnetic field is generated by the coma and stretches out a million kilometers. In 2014 Siding Spring passed over Mars at a distance of 140,000 kilometers. It brought both magnetic fields in distance with each other.
As a result Mars was flooded with an invisible tide of charged particles from the coma. The magnetic field merged and some regions in Mars began to realign to point in different directions.
As the comet came nearer the effects intensified and Mars' magnetic field was in complete chaos. The disturbances in magnetic field remained even hours after the comet passed.
"With MAVEN, we're trying to understand how the sun and solar wind interact with Mars," said Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN's principal investigator from the University of Colorado's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Boulder.
"By looking at how the magnetospheres of the comet and of Mars interact with each other, we're getting a better understanding of the detailed processes that control each one."
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The findings were published in a paper titled "A comet engulfs Mars: MAVEN observations of comet Siding Spring's influence on the Martian magnetosphere" in Geophysical Research Letters.