March 24, 2011

What kind of comet is this?

On November 4, NASA's robotic EPOXI spacecraft whizzed past Comet 103P/Hartley, also known as Comet Hartley 2, and recorded images and data that are both strange and fascinating. To me it looks like something from Star Trek 4's alien probe. EPOXI was near its closest approach (about 700 kilometers away) when it snapped the above picture. As expected, the comet has indeed shown itself to be a tumbling iceberg orbiting the Sun between Earth and Jupiter.

However, unexpected features on the images have raised many questions. For example, where are all the craters? Why is there a large smooth area around the middle? How much of Comet Hartley 2 is a loose pile of dust and ice shards? Future analyses and comparisons to other comet nuclei may answer some of these questions and, hopefully, lead to a better general understanding of comets, meteors, and the early Solar System.

Follow these 5 frames clockwise starting from the top left to track the view from the EPOXI mission spacecraft as it approached, passed under, and then looked back at the nucleus of comet Hartley 2.

No comments: