As Comet Siding Spring passed close by Mars on Sunday (Oct. 19), NASA’s newest Mars spacecraft took a time-out from its commissioning to grab some ultraviolet pictures of its coma. What you see above is hydrogen, a whole lot of it, leaving the comet in this picture taken from 5.3 million miles (8.5 million kilometers).
The hydrogen is a product of the water ice on the comet that the Sun is slowly melting and breaking apart into hydrogen and oxygen molecules. Because hydrogen scatters ultraviolet light from the Sun, it shows up rather clearly in this picture taken by the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft.
Check out more recent pictures of Siding Spring below.
Elizabeth Howell is the senior writer at Universe Today. She also works for Space.com, Space Exploration Network, the NASA Lunar Science Institute, NASA Astrobiology Magazine and LiveScience, among others. Career highlights include watching three shuttle launches, and going on a two-week simulated Mars expedition in rural Utah. You can follow her on Twitter @howellspace or contact her at her website.