October 21, 2010
Recent observations of comet Hartley 2 have scientists scratching their heads, while they anticipate a flyby of the small, icy world on Nov. 4.
A phenomenon was recorded by imagers aboard NASA's Deep Impact spacecraft from Sept. 9 to 17 during pre-planned scientific observations of the comet. These observations, when coupled with expected images during the closest encounter with Hartley 2 on Nov. 4, will become the most detailed look yet at a comet's activity during its pass through the inner-solar system.
"On Earth, cyanide is known as a deadly gas. In space it's known as one of the most easily observed ingredients that is always present in a comet," said Mike A'Hearn of the University of Maryland, College Park. A'Hearn is principal of EPOXI, an extended mission that utilizes the already "in flight" Deep Impact spacecraft. "Our observations indicate that cyanide released by the comet increased by a factor of five over an eight-day period in September without any increase in dust emissions," A'Hearn said. "We have never seen this kind of activity in a comet before, and it could affect the quality of observations made by astronomers on the ground."
The new phenomenon is very unlike typical cometary outbursts, which have sudden onsets and are usually accompanied by considerable dust. It also seems unrelated to the cyanide jets that are sometimes seen in comets. The EPOXI science team believes that astronomers and interested observers viewing the comet from Earth should be aware of this type of activity when planning observations and interpreting their data.
"If observers monitoring Hartley 2 do not take into account this new phenomenon, they could easily get the wrong picture of how the comet is changing as it approaches and recedes from the sun," said A'Hearn.
Cyanide is a carbon-based molecule. It is believed that billions of years ago, a bombardment of comets carried cyanide and other building blocks of life to Earth.
The name EPOXI itself is a combination of the names for the two extended mission components: the extrasolar planet observations, called Extrasolar Planet Observations and Characterization (EPOCh), and the flyby of comet Hartley 2, called the Deep Impact Extended Investigation (DIXI). The spacecraft will continue to be referred to as "Deep Impact."
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., manages the EPOXI mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The University of Maryland, College Park, is home to the mission's principal investigator, Michael A'Hearn. Drake Deming of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., is the science lead for the mission's extrasolar planet observations. The spacecraft was built for NASA by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colo.
For more information about EPOXI visit http://epoxi.umd.edu/.
DC Agle 818-393-9011
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.