Astronomers say that a comet will make an close flyby next year, not of Earth, but of our neighbor planet, Mars. According to a Monday report on Discovery.com, the recently discovered comet, named C/2013 A1 will fly close to Mars on Oct. 19 of 2014.
Comets are balls of ice and debris flung off in the process of forming planets and stars. Comet c/2013 is believed, like many others that pass through our solar system, to have originated in what is known as the Oort Cloud. The Oort Cloud is a massive field of many billions of comets that surrounds our solar system. The cloud was theorized by astronomer Jan Oort in 1950, but it has never been seen and scientists, while mostly accepting that it exists, argue about its size and where the comet nuclei floating in it came from.
Comets have struck planets in our solar system before. In 1994, comet Shoemaker-Levy slammed into Jupiter. The surface of Mars is pockmarked with ancient comet craters, and some astronomers theorize that our own oceans were formed by the impact of water-bearing comets on the Earth.
C/2013 A1 was discovered on Jan. 3 of this year by "ace comet hunter" Robert McNaught at the Siding Spring Observatory in New South Wales, Australia. When it was spotted, astronomers at the Catalina Sky Survey in Arizona studied its size, speed, path and velocity. They also looked back over "pre-recovery" observations made of the comet since December of 2012 and were able to determine that the object should pass within 63,000 miles of the Martian surface.
Caveats apply, of course. Scientists only have a total of about 75 days of data on the comet, making it difficult to determine exactly where the flying chunk of rock and ice will be in 20 months. One one edge of the calculated possible path of C/2013 A1, the comet could pass by Mars at much more than a safe distance. On the other hand, one set of calculations puts Mars directly in the comet's path.
Comets typically are not small objects, and even small bodies can make a big impact when they strike a planet while moving at about 35 miles per second (126,000 miles per hour). For Mars, the collision would be a global event. As astronomers say, however, the likelihood of a direct Mars collision is very slim.
Earlier this month, a meteor exploded in the atmosphere over the Chelyabinsk region of Russia, sending out a shockwave that injured hundreds and destroyed property for miles. Meteors are much smaller than comets and do not follow an orbital path around the sun like comets do.
[image via Shutterstock]