Fizzy Comet Hartley 2 is Throwing Snowballs

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As Jessica Sunshine said, Comet Hartley 2 might be the smallest of the five comets that our spacecraft have visited, but no doubt it is the most interesting, and for its size, the most active. Sunshine is the EPOXI mission deputy principal investigator, and she and her team have had the chance to analyze images from the Nov. 4 flyby of the comet. Closeup views yielded some big surprises: Hartley 2 is throwing snowballs.

“When we first saw all the specks surrounding the nucleus, our mouths dropped,” said Pete Schultz, EPOXI mission co-investigator at Brown University. “Stereo images reveal there are snowballs in front and behind the nucleus, making it look like a scene in one of those crystal snow globes.”

Estimates of the size of the largest particles ranges from a golf ball to a basketball.

Another surprise, which was noted almost immediately from the flyby images, were that the very active jets on the comet were powered by carbon dioxide. “This is the first time we’ve ever seen individual chunks of ice in the cloud around a comet or jets definitively powered by carbon dioxide gas,” said Michael A’Hearn, principal investigator for the spacecraft. “We looked for, but didn’t see, such ice particles around comet Tempel 1,” the comet that the Deep Impact spacecraft flew by in 2005.

Here are highlights from the press conference last week, along with some of the fantastic imagery of Comet Hartley 2.

Hartley 2 CO2 jet up close. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UMD/Brown
Comet Hartley 2 can be seen in glorious detail in this image from NASA's EPOXI mission. It was taken as the spacecraft flew by around 6:59 a.m. PDT (9:59 a.m. EDT), from a distance of about 700 kilometers (435 miles). The comet's nucleus, or main body, is approximately 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) long and .4 kilometers (.25 miles) at the 'neck' or most narrow portion. Jets can be seen streaming out of the nucleus. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UMD
This image from the High-Resolution Instrument on NASA's EPOXI mission spacecraft shows part of the nucleus of comet Hartley 2. The sun is illuminating the nucleus from the right. A distinct cloud of individual particles is visible. This image was obtained on Nov. 4, 2010, the day the EPOXI mission spacecraft made its closest approach to the comet. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UMD
Infrared scans of comet Hartley 2 by NASA's EPOXI mission spacecraft show carbon dioxide, dust, and ice being distributed in a similar way and emanating from apparently the same locations on the nucleus. Water vapor, however, has a different distribution implying a different source region and process. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UMD
This zoomed-in image from the High-Resolution Instrument on NASA's EPOXI mission spacecraft shows the particles swirling in a 'snow storm' around the nucleus of comet Hartley 2. Scientists estimate the size of the largest particles ranges from a golf ball to a basketball. They have determined these are icy particles rather than dust. The particles are believed to be very porous and fluffy. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UMD
The motion of some icy particles in the cloud around Hartley 2, as seen by NASA's EPOXI mission spacecraft. A star moving through the background is marked with red and moves in a particular direction and with a particular speed, while the icy particles move in random directions. The icy particles are marked in green, blue and light blue. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UMD/Brown
This image shows the nuclei of comets Tempel 1 and Hartley 2, as imaged by NASA's Deep Impact spacecraft, which continued as an extended mission known as EPOXI. Tempel 1 is five times larger than Hartley 2. Visible jets are easily seen in images of Hartley 2, but required extensive processing to be seen in images of Tempel 1. Tempel 1 is 7.6 kilometers (4.7 miles) in the longest dimension. Hartley 2 is 2.2 km (1.4 miles) long. The Tempel 1 image was built up from more than 25 images captured by the impactor targeting sensor on July 4, 2005. The Hartley 2 image was obtained by the Medium- Resolution Imager on Nov. 4, 2010.

Simple Colors Could Provide First Details of Alien Worlds

At best, the few extrasolar planets we have imaged directly are just points of light. But what can that light tell us about the planet? Maybe more than we thought. As you probably know the, Deep Impact spacecraft flew by comet Hartley 2 today, taking images from only 700 km away. But maneuvering to meet up with the comet is not the only job this spacecraft has been doing. The EPOXI mission also looked for ways to characterize extrasolar planets and the team made a discovery that should help identify distinctive information about extrasolar planets. How did they do it? By using the Deep Impact spacecraft to look at the planets in our very own solar system.

The spacecraft imaged the planetary bodies in our solar system — in particular the Earth, Mars and our Moon — (see here for movies of the Moon transiting Earth) and astronomer Lucy McFadden and UCLA graduate Carolyn Crow compared the reflected red, blue, and green light and grouped the planets according to the similarities they saw. The planets fall into very distinct regions on this plot, where the vertical direction indicates the relative amount of blue light, and the horizontal direction the relative amount of red light.

This suggests that when we do have the technology to gather light from individual exoplanets, astronomers could use color information to identify Earth-like worlds. “Eventually, as telescopes get bigger, there will be the light-gathering power to look at the colors of planets around other stars,” McFadden says. “Their colors will tell us which ones to study in more detail.”

On the plot, the planets cluster into groups based on similarities in the wavelengths of sunlight that their surfaces and atmospheres reflect. The gas giants Jupiter and Saturn huddle in one corner, Uranus and Neptune in a different one. The rocky inner planets Mars, Venus, and Mercury cluster off in their own corner of “color space.”

But Earth really stands out, and its uniqueness comes from two factors. One is the scattering of blue light by the atmosphere, called Rayleigh scattering, after the English scientist who discovered it. The second reason Earth stands out in color is because it does not absorb a lot of infrared light. That’s because our atmosphere is low in infrared-absorbing gases like methane and ammonia, compared to the gas giant planets Jupiter and Saturn.

“It is Earth’s atmosphere that dominates the colors of Earth,” Crow says. “It’s the scattering of light in the ultraviolet and the absence of absorption in the infrared.”

So, this filtering approach could provide a preliminary look at exoplanet surfaces and atmospheres, giving us an inkling of whether the planet is rocky or a gas planet, or what kind of atmosphere it has.

EPOXI is a combination of the names for the two extended mission components for the Deep Impact spacecraft: the first part of the acronym comes from EPOCh, (Extrasolar Planet Observations and Characterization) and the flyby of comet Hartley 2 is called the Deep Impact eXtended Investigation (DIXI).

First Close Images of Hartley 2: It’s a Peanut with Jets

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NASA’s Deep Impact spacecraft came within 700 kilometers (435 miles) of Comet Hartley 2 at 10:01 a.m. EDT (1401 GMT) today, imaging with several cameras. Here are the first pictures released of the closest approach.

The scientific team watched along with viewers online and on NASA TV as the images were returned to Earth, about an hour after the spacecraft made its closest approach. First impressions? It is a peanut with jets.

“This is a type of moment that scientists live for,” said JPL’s Don Yeomans, “to get new results in such a dramatic fashion. The images are clear, taken as spacecraft was approaching, then as it swung past and moved away.”

The Sun is off to right, and visible is the icy surface of the comet throwing dust and gas towards the Sun.


Another view of Comet Hartley 2 during EXPOXI close approach. Credit: NASA

More images will be coming down from the spacecraft and Yeomans said the scientists will be examining Hartley 2, looking for the origination spots of the jets. “Are the jets coming from the surface, or is it coming from well beneath where heat of Sun reaches into the comet? We’ll be looking for how many jets, or if possibly the whole comet outgassing. There is a single obvious jet coming off towards the Sun, but also you can see one at the 7 o’clock position, which was evident in previous images, too.”

Image of Hartley 2 as the EXPOXI spacecraft moved away from comet. Credit:NASA

The spacecraft uses several high-resolution instruments, and one camera can image the entire comet with a resolution of about seven meters (about 23 feet) per pixel. The spacecraft also acquired 199 medium-resolution images.

From previous images taken by EPOXI from a distance and radar images taken from the ground, scientists knew Hartley 2 was a bi-lobate comet, which means peanut- or pickle-shaped. But they didn’t know if it was a solid surface or a contact binary, where two smaller cometesimals were stuck together.

But, Yeomans said, these images show the comet is of a solid, one-piece construction.

EPOXI Principal Investigator Mike A’Hearn agreed. “Every time we go to a comet they are full of big surprises,” he said. “The comets we’ve seen up close all seem to work the same way, but they look very different so there must be some fundamental differences in the ways they work. It could be they came from different parts of the early solar system or that they evolved very differently. Finding out how the solar system formed is really what we want out of this.”

The discoverer of Hartley 2, Malcolm Hartley, was on hand at JPL for the closest approach. He found the comet 26 years ago as a smudge on photographic plates taken at the Siding Spring Observatory in Australia. “I was doing quality control of photographic plates and I noticed faint object with a telltale glow like a comet,” said Hartley, who still works at the same observatory. “It has been very interesting to be here, and it has been interesting for the science team and quite a challenge for the engineers. There’s going to be enough data downloaded to keep researchers busy for several years.”

See the EPOXI website for more images, and more will be coming down from the spacecraft over the next few days.

To see a “quick and dirty” animation of the flyby images, see this link provided by Doug Ellision of Unmanned Spaceflight.com (and JPL).

Watch Live Coverage of EPOXI’s Hartley 2 Encounter on Nov. 4

Comet 103P/Hartley 2 Animation, created by images taken by Patrick Wiggins, NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador to Utah. Used by permission.

Watch live coverage of the EPOXI mission’s close flyby of Comet Hartley 2. Live coverage begins on November 4, 2010 at 9:30 a.m. EDT (6:30 a.m. PDT) from mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. You can watch NASA TV’s Media Channel online at this link, (and make sure you click on the “Media Channel” tab on the right side of the “tv” screen). You can also watch on JPL’s UStream channel online. Coverage includes closest approach, an educational segment, and the return of close-approach images. Emily Lakdawalla of the Planetary Society Blog has posted a very detailed timeline of the encounter.
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