Last updated: November 07, 2010

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NASA Deep Impact probe sends images of Hartley 2 comet from space

Hartley 2

The Deep Impact spacecraft passed within 700 kilometers of the comet, it is estimated to be 2.2 kilometers long, and weighs about 280 million metric tons / AP Source: AP

Hartley 2

Project manager Tim Larson and deputy project manager Don Sweetnam celebrate as the first images from spacecraft arrive / AP Source: AP

  • Deep Impact probe images of Hartley 2 comet
  • Comet 2.2km long, weighs 280m metric tons
  • Fifth time in history probe has been this close

THE astronomer who discovered the Hartley 2 comet says recently returned images could change the way scientists view the universe.

Speaking from mission control in California, where he had been flown by NASA to watch the images come in as a guest, Malcolm Hartley said the pictures released so far were only the beginning.

"The pictures are quite stunning, there are so many jets. They have only released a small sample of the images; the best are yet to come," he said.

“Michael A'Hearn [principal investigator] says there is enough data here to keep scientists busy for the next ten years.

"This could revolutionise the way we think about comets and the solar system in general.”

The images were sent by NASA space probe Deep Impact as it passed the comet at 1am this morning some 37 million kilometres from Earth.

They show a 2.25km long peanut-shaped collection of rock and ice with jets of gas erupting from its ends as it faces the sun's warmth from deep space.

“There is so much activity on the comet, so many jets" Mr Hartley said. 

“There are jets coming out of the dark side of the comet, not the bright side, that’s quite interesting.”

The British-born Mr Hartley discovered the comet while he was working from Siding Spring Observatory in New South Wales, Australia.

He said he never imagined a spacecraft would get so close to his namesake find.

"When I saw the comet, it was millions and millions of kilometres away," he said.

"I'm extremely excited and feel very privileged. After all, I only discovered it."

The pictures were taken as part of the EPOXI extended mission to explore "distinct celestial targets of opportunity",

Scientists and mission controllers waited for 20 minutes while data from the craft’s two imagers and infrared instrument were transmitted to NASA's Deep Space Network antennas in Goldstone, California.

“The mission team and scientists have worked hard for this day," Tim Larson, EPOXI project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory said.

“It's good to see Hartley 2 up close.”

This is only the fifth time a spaceship has come close enough to a comet to take pictures of this type.

Mission controllers burst into applause upon seeing images from the flyby that revealed a peanut-shaped comet belching jets of poisonous gases.

"It's hyperactive, small and feisty," mission scientist Don Yeomans said.

The close encounter occurred when the Deep Impact craft flew within 700km of Hartley 2.

Scientists are interested in comets because they're icy leftovers from the formation of the solar system about 4.5 billion years ago.

Studying them could provide clues to how Earth and the planets formed and evolved.

"We are all holding our breath to see what discoveries await us in the observations near closest approach," EPOXI principal investigator Michael A'Hearn said.

"We are really looking forward to this because the comet has shown so many surprises, both in the data from EPOXI and the data from our many collaborators, over the last several months.”

The program’s name EPOXI is a combination of the names for the two mission components: the extrasolar planet observations, called Extrasolar Planet Observations and Characterization (EPOCh), and the flyby of comet Hartley 2, called the Deep Impact Extended Investigation (DIXI).

Deep Impact last visited a comet in July 2005 when it fired a probe into the Tempel 1.

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  • XXX of West Coast Posted at 2:17 PM November 05, 2010

    Cool. I can't wait to see some clearer images of this beast! Amazing stuff. And Tony, of course they're going to change opinions as they learn more and have better technology to discover these things. Wake up dude!!

  • BionicBeerGut of Jupiter Posted at 2:13 PM November 05, 2010

    "Paul ACT of Canberra Posted at 12:37 PM Today I wonder what would happen if that hit Earth......." It would do the planet a favour!

  • Anthony Adverse Posted at 2:10 PM November 05, 2010

    Lucifer's Hammer

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