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Science Paper Details NASA EPOXI Flyby of Hyper Comet

JPL Press Release

June 16, 2011 - PASADENA, Calif. -- Comet Hartley 2's hyperactive state, as studied by NASA's EPOXI mission, is detailed in a new paper published in this week's issue of the journal Science.

  NASA's Stardust-NExT mission took this image of comet Tempel 1 at 8:39 p.m. PST (11:39 p.m. EST) on Feb 14, 2011. The comet was first visited by NASA's Deep Impact mission in 2005. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell
  This image of comet Hartley 2 was taken as NASA's EPOXI mission flew by around 6:59 a.m. PDT (9:59 a.m. EDT), from a distance of about 435 miles (700 kilometers). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UMD View larger image

After visiting a comet and imaging distant stars for hints of extrasolar planets, you could say the spacecraft used for EPOXI had seen its fair share of celestial wonders. But after about 3.2 billion miles (5.1 billion kilometers) of deep space travel, one final wonder awaited the mission's project and science teams. On Nov. 4, 2010, the EPOXI mission spacecraft flew past a weird little comet called Hartley 2.

"From all the imaging we took during approach, we knew the comet was a little skittish even before flyby," said EPOXI Project Manager Tim Larson of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "It was moving around the sky like a knuckleball and gave my navigators fits, and these new results show this little comet is downright hyperactive."

The EPOXI mission found that the strong activity in water release and carbon dioxide-powered jets did not occur equally in the different regions of the comet. During the spacecraft's flyby of the comet – with closest approach of 431 miles (694 kilometers) – carbon-dioxide-driven jets were seen at the ends of the comet, with most occurring at the small end. In the middle region, or waist of the comet, water was released as vapor with very little carbon dioxide or ice. The latter findings indicate that material in the waist likely came off the ends of the comet and was redeposited.

"Hartley 2 is a hyperactive little comet, spewing out more water than most other comets its size," said Mike A'Hearn, principal investigator of EPOXI from the University of Maryland, College Park. "When warmed by the sun, dry ice -- frozen carbon dioxide -- deep in the comet's body turns to gas jetting off the comet and dragging water ice with it."

Although Hartley 2 is the only such hyperactive comet visited by a spacecraft, scientists know of at least a dozen other comets that also are relatively high in activity for their size and which are probably driven by carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide.

"These could represent a separate class of hyperactive comets," said A'Hearn. "Or they could be a continuum in comet activity extending from Hartley 2-like comets all the way to the much less active, 'normal' comets that we are more used to seeing."

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