US and Indian Spacecraft Rapidly Approach Mars (Page 2)

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Cosmic Close Encounter

The scientists monitoring the spacecraft will also find themselves with a rare opportunity just one month after arriving at the planet. Comet Siding Spring will make its closest approach to Mars on Oct. 19, while MAVEN is still being readied for full operations to start Nov. 8. But the team will pause this work to watch the comet, Jakosky said.

"We'll make observations for about two days before and two days after the comet's closest approach," Jakosky added. "We will make observations in spectroscopic imaging, which shows us a lot about the [comet's] composition, and then observe the upper atmosphere."

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While scientists are excited to catch sight of the comet — and current predictions show that spacecraft orbiting Mars should be safe during the close pass — researchers also need to keep the health of the spacecraft in mind during the flyby. MAVEN controllers aren't taking any chances, Jakosky added.

They will have the spacecraft behind the planet for 20 minutes during the comet's closest approach, and will point the solar panels edge-on to the dust to minimize the chance of a strike. Ground controllers will also turn off nonessential instruments.

The mission is designed to last one Earth year, but NASA hopes it will stretch a lot longer as it will also serve as a communications relay for the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers on the Martian surface. MAVEN's science team would also prefer a longer mission so they can continue observations.

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If funding is extended, there's enough fuel to last perhaps 10 years, Jakosky said. Many components "have a lot of heritage" from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, he added, which is still in good health after eight years of operations at the planet.

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