NASA spacecraft captures super close-up shots of comet

Scientists hope probe's successful fly-by mission will shed further light on the makeup of the nucleus

By Christopher Hickey
Published November 4, 2010 7:05PM (EDT)
Hartley 2
Hartley 2

Remember the last time you saw pictures of a comet's nucleus? Exactly.

Normally the Road Runners of the skies, comets pose a challenge for any space camera. NASA's Deep Impact probe, however, went the extra light year and flew within about 435 miles of comet Hartley 2 -- close enough for a glimpse of its nucleus, or the core of the comet. And apparently behind every mighty comet is a space peanut, judging by the photos.  

But snarkiness aside, this is a good day for science. Consider that Hartley 2 is only about three quarters of a mile across. Barely a dent in the vast reaches of space. Put in that perspective, timing the craft's fly-by with the comet is a mind-boggling feat. Even though 435 miles is like looking at Sacramento from Laguna Beach, consider that the distance from Earth to the Moon is 238,857 miles. Yeah, space is big. 

The spacecraft is currently on a mission called EPOXI, designed to look back at the Earth and see what a habitable and inhabited planet looks like from a distance. That data will help scientists recognize life-friendly planets orbiting other stars. This is interesting in itself, considering astronomers discovered the "Goldilocks planet" barely over a month ago. Deep Impact also hopes to determine the makeup of the comet's nucleus. Meanwhile, JPL is showing off a full set of EPOXI mission comet photos.

Deep Impact is the best name ever for a probe taking pictures of a comet, by the way. Let's hope Hartley 2 doesn't suffer the same fate as this comet: 

Christopher Hickey

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