NASA EPOXI Flyby Reveals New Insights Into Comet Features

PASADENA, Calif. – NASA’s EPOXI mission spacecraft successfully flew past comet Hartley 2 at 7 a.m. PDT (10 a.m. EDT) Thursday, Nov. 4. Scientists say initial images from the flyby provide new information about the comet’s volume and material spewing from its surface.

“Early observations of the comet show that, for the first time, we may be able to connect activity to individual features on the nucleus,” said EPOXI Principal Investigator Michael A’Hearn of the University of Maryland, College Park. “We certainly have our hands full. The images are full of great cometary data, and that’s what we hoped for.”

This image montage shows comet Hartley 2 as NASA's EPOXI mission approached and flew under the comet. The images progress in time clockwise, starting at the top left. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UMD

EPOXI is an extended mission that uses the already in-flight Deep Impact spacecraft. Its encounter phase with Hartley 2 began at 1 p.m. PDT (4 p.m. EDT) on Nov. 3, when the spacecraft began to point its two imagers at the comet’s nucleus. Imaging of the nucleus began one hour later.

“The spacecraft has provided the most extensive observations of a comet in history,” said Ed Weiler, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. “Scientists and engineers have successfully squeezed world-class science from a re-purposed spacecraft at a fraction of the cost to taxpayers of a new science project.”

Images from the EPOXI mission reveal comet Hartley 2 to have 100 times less volume than comet Tempel 1, the first target of Deep Impact. More revelations about Hartley 2 are expected as analysis continues.

Initial estimates indicate the spacecraft was about 700 kilometers (435 miles) from the comet at the closest-approach point. That’s almost the exact distance that was calculated by engineers in advance of the flyby.

“It is a testament to our team’s skill that we nailed the flyby distance to a comet that likes to move around the sky so much,” said Tim Larson, EPOXI project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “While it’s great to see the images coming down, there is still work to be done. We have another three weeks of imaging during our outbound journey.”

The name EPOXI is a combination of the names for the two extended mission components: the Extrasolar Planet Observations and Characterization (EPOCh), and the flyby of comet Hartley 2, called the Deep Impact Extended Investigation (DIXI). The spacecraft has retained the name “Deep Impact.” In 2005, Deep Impact successfully released an impactor into the path of comet Tempel 1.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology, manages the EPOXI mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. The spacecraft was built for NASA by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., in Boulder, Colo.

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New Cometary Phenomenon Greets Approaching Spacecraft

Recent observations of comet Hartley 2 have scientists scratching their heads, while they anticipate a flyby of the small, icy world on Nov. 4.

A phenomenon was recorded by imagers aboard NASA’s Deep Impact spacecraft from Sept. 9 to 17 during pre-planned scientific observations of the comet. These observations, when coupled with expected images during the closest encounter with Hartley 2 on Nov. 4, will become the most detailed look yet at a comet’s activity during its pass through the inner-solar system.

NASA's Deep Impact/EPOXI spacecraft flew past Earth on June 27, 2010, to get a boost from Earth’s gravity. It is now on its way to comet Hartley 2, depicted in this artist’s concept, with a planned flyby this fall. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“On Earth, cyanide is known as a deadly gas. In space it’s known as one of the most easily observed ingredients that is always present in a comet,” said Mike A’Hearn of the University of Maryland, College Park. A’Hearn is principal of EPOXI, an extended mission that utilizes the already “in flight” Deep Impact spacecraft. “Our observations indicate that cyanide released by the comet increased by a factor of five over an eight-day period in September without any increase in dust emissions,” A’Hearn said. “We have never seen this kind of activity in a comet before, and it could affect the quality of observations made by astronomers on the ground.”

The new phenomenon is very unlike typical cometary outbursts, which have sudden onsets and are usually accompanied by considerable dust. It also seems unrelated to the cyanide jets that are sometimes seen in comets. The EPOXI science team believes that astronomers and interested observers viewing the comet from Earth should be aware of this type of activity when planning observations and interpreting their data.

“If observers monitoring Hartley 2 do not take into account this new phenomenon, they could easily get the wrong picture of how the comet is changing as it approaches and recedes from the sun,” said A’Hearn.

Cyanide is a carbon-based molecule. It is believed that billions of years ago, a bombardment of comets carried cyanide and other building blocks of life to Earth.

The name EPOXI itself is a combination of the names for the two extended 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). The spacecraft will continue to be referred to as “Deep Impact.”

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., manages the EPOXI mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The University of Maryland, College Park, is home to the mission’s principal investigator, Michael A’Hearn. Drake Deming of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., is the science lead for the mission’s extrasolar planet observations. The spacecraft was built for NASA by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colo.

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