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Spacecraft Beams Sharp Photos Of Comet's Core To NASA

Peanut or Drumstick? The core of comet Hartley 2, photographed by the Deep Impact spacecraft. NASA hide caption

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NASA got some nice pics in their inbox today from the Deep Impact craft, which snapped photos of a comet's core as the craft hurtled past comet Hartley 2. The viewing of the roughly 1.4-mile-long comet core occurred at 10 a.m. ET, according to the space agency.

Those in the control room burst into applause upon seeing the images, taken millions of miles from the Earth. Describing the comet, mission scientist Don Yeomans of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory said, "It's hyperactive, small and feisty."

Early photos of the encounter are strikingly detailed — but scientists say they won't have the best, high-resolution shots from the craft until later. They show that the comet is propelled by jets spewing gases.

And since they're placed irregularly on an oblong shape, one researcher compared tracking the comet to trying to hit a knuckleball.

Here's an excerpt from the AP:

Since September, Deep Impact has been stalking Hartley 2 like a paparazzo, taking images every 5 minutes and gathering data. It's the first craft to visit two comets.

Deep Impact will observe Hartley 2 until Thanksgiving and then wait for further instructions from NASA. The space agency has not decided whether to reuse Deep Impact again. The craft does not have enough fuel on board to do another flyby.

On the site, the comet is being described as a "space peanut," which seems accurate — although the comet's core also resembles a chicken leg or drumstick.

NASA has tracked and communicated with Deep Impact by using its Deep Space Network, with sites in the Mojave Desert, Spain, and Australia. According to the agency, most of the data from the spacecraft is arriving to Earth via 110-ft. antennas.

Deep Impact derives its name from its first mission, when months after its launch in 2005, a section of the craft was detached and rammed into the nucleus of comet Tempel 1. The agency plans to revisit Tempel 1 on Feb. 14 of next year.

In its current form, NASA describes Deep Impact as being "about the size of a mid-sized sport utility vehicle." The craft has two computers, with a total memory of 1,024 megabytes.

Here's a bit more from the AP:

Hartley 2 passed within 11 million miles of Earth on Oct. 20 — the closest it has been to our planet since its discovery in 1986.

British-born astronomer Malcolm Hartley, who discovered the comet, said he never imagined a spacecraft would get so close to his namesake find.

"When I saw the comet, it was millions and millions of kilometers away," he said. "I'm extremely excited and feel very privileged. After all, I only discovered it."