Hartley 2 in Motion: Stunning Morph Animation of Flyby Images

The folks from UnmannedSpaceflight.com have done it again. Daniel Machácek created this wonderful animation from just the five initial images of Hartley 2 that were released by the Deep Impact team immediately following its flyby on November 4, 2010, using Sqirlz Morph software. Time in the animation is five times faster than the actual speed of the flyby. Hartley 2 really does look like a flying bowling pin, except this one is 2km (1.25 miles) long and about .2 km in diameter. Thanks to Daniel for sharing his animation.

Comet Hartley 2 Scouted by WISE, Hubble for Upcoming Encounter

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In a little less than a month, NASA’s Deep Impact spacecraft (its current mission is called EPOXI) will fly by the comet Hartley 2 to image the comet’s nucleus and take other measurements. In preparation for this event, both the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) and the Hubble Space Telescope have imaged the comet, scouting out the destination for Deep Impact.

On November 4th of this year, Deep Impact will come within 435 miles (700 km) of the comet Hartley 2, close enough to take images of the comet’s nucleus.

The name of the mission is EPOXI, which is a combination of the names for the two separate missions the spacecraft has been most recently tasked with: 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 itself is still referred to as Deep Impact, though, despite the changes and extensions of its mission.

NASA’s Deep Impact mission to slam a copper weight into comet Tempel 1 was a wonderful success, sending back data that greatly improved our understanding of the composition of comets. After the encounter, though, there was still a lot of life left in the spacecraft, so it was tasked with another cometary confrontation: take images of the comet Hartley 2.

Deep Impact is an example of NASA using a single spacecraft to perform multiple, disparate missions. In addition to impacting and imaging Tempel 1 and performing a flyby of Hartley 2, the spacecraft took observations of 5 different stars outside of our Solar System during the period between January and August of 2008 (8 were scheduled, but some observations were missed due to technical difficulties).

It looked at stars with known exoplanets to observe transits of those planets in front of the star, giving astronomers a better idea of the orbital period, albedo – or reflectivity – and size of the planets.

Click here for a list of the various stars and transits it observed, as listed on the mission page.

Deep Impact also took data on both the Earth and Mars as they passed in front of our own Sun, to help characterize what exoplanets with a similar size and composition the Earth and Mars would look like passing in front of a star.

NASA's WISE infrared observatory took this image of Hartley 2, showing the extent of its tail, on May 10th, 2010. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

As of September 29th, Deep Impact was about 23 million miles (37 million km) away from Hartley 2. It is approaching at roughly 607,000 miles a day (976,000 km), so that puts it at about 18 million miles (29 million km) away from the comet today. As it approaches, Deep Impact will speed up, to over 620,000 miles (1,000,000 km) per day.

The path of Comet Hartley 2. Image courtesy Sky & Telescope.

You won’t have to depend on NASA’s observatories and the spacecraft to see a view of Hartley 2, though – you should be able to see it with the naked eye or binoculars near the constellation Perseus throughout the month of October. On October 20th, it will make its closest approach to Earth at a distance of 11 million miles (17.7 million km). The comet is officially designated 103P Hartley, and for viewing information you can go to Heavens Above.

As always, check this space regularly for updates on the upcoming flyby.

Sources: JPL here, here and here, Hubblesite, Heavens Above

Spacecraft to Make Final Flyby of Earth

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The re-purposed Deep Impact spacecraft will make one final flyby of Earth on Sunday June 27, 2010, getting a gravity assist to help propel the spacecraft towards a meetup with comet Hartley 2 this fall. The spacecraft bus that brought the Deep Impact “impactor” to comet Tempel 1 in July of 2005 has been put back to work double time where two new missions share the same spacecraft. This is the fifth time this spacecraft has flown by Earth, and at the time of closest approach on Sunday, it will be about 30,400 kilometers (18,900 miles) above the South Atlantic.

“The speed and orbital track of the spacecraft can be changed by changing aspects of its flyby of Earth, such as how close it comes to the planet,” said University of Maryland astronomer Michael A’Hearn, principal investigator for both the new EPOXI mission and its predecessor mission, Deep Impact.

The combined operation EPOXI is a combo-acronym of the two separate missions. The Deep Impact Extended Investigation (DIXI) of comets will observe comet 103P/Hartley 2 during a close flyby in November 2010. The other half of the dynamic duo, called the Extrasolar Planet Observation and Characterization (EPOCh) which is observing stars already known to have transiting giant planets.

“There is always some gravity boost at a flyby and in some cases, like this one, it is the main reason for a flyby. The last Earth flyby was used primarily to change the tilt of the spacecraft’s orbit to match that of comet Hartley 2, and we are using Sunday’s flyby to also change the shape of the orbit to get us to the comet,” said A’Hearn.

The Deep Impact mission smashed a companion probe into comet Tempel 1 on July 4, 2005 to reveal the inner material of a comet.

“Earth is a great place to pick up orbital velocity,” said Tim Larson, the EPOXI project manager from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “This flyby will give our spacecraft a 1.5-kilometer-per-second [3,470 mph] boost, setting us up to get up close and personal with comet Hartley 2.”

During a previous flyby of Earth, the mission team has used the spacecraft’s instruments to find evidence of water on the Moon and to study light reflected from Earth as a template that scientists eventually may be able be use to identify Earth-like planets around other stars.

Source: University of Maryland