NASA satellite shows comet throwing off cosmic snowstorm

NASA’s EPOXI mission to Hartley 2 finding new comet information

nasa epoxi shot of hartley 2
NASA today said the satellite it recently sent to  buzz the Hartley 2 comet took the first clear images of the cosmic snowstorm produced by those hurtling balls of ice and rock.

NASA said its EPOXI spacecraft revealed what it called a "cometary snow storm" created by carbon dioxide jets spewing out tons of golf-ball to basketball-sized fluffy ice particles from the peanut-shaped comet's rocky ends. At the same time, a different process was causing water vapor to escape from the comet's smooth mid-section.

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"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," said Pete Schultz, EPOXI mission co-investigator at Brown University in a statement.

NASA said carbon dioxide appears to be a key to understanding Hartley 2 and explains why the smooth and rough areas scientists saw respond differently to solar heating, and have different mechanisms by which water escapes from the comet's interior.

NASA scientists are also comparing the results from this EPOXI flyby with the spacecraft's other comet investigation which occurred in 2005 when it sent a device into the path of comet Tempel 1 and took measurements of the impact.

Data show the smooth area of comet Hartley 2 looks and behaves like most of the surface of comet Tempel 1, with water evaporating below the surface and percolating out through the dust. However, the rough areas of Hartley 2, with carbon dioxide jets spraying out ice particles, are very different, NASA stated.

"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," stated Michael A'Hearn, principal investigator for the spacecraft at the University of Maryland. "We looked for, but didn't see, such ice particles around comet Tempel 1."

NASA said scientists will need more time to analyze how long this snow storm has been active, and whether the differences in activity between the middle and ends of the comet are the result of how it formed some 4.5 billion years ago or are because of more recent effects.

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

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