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Spacecraft snaps close-up images of comet

By the CNN Wire Staff
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Comet Hartley 2 passes just 435 miles from spacecraft
  • EPOXI Deep Impact is the first spacecraft to have visited two comets
  • Scientists hope to learn more about comets from close imagery

(CNN) -- A spacecraft survived the closest encounter ever with a comet on Thursday, tracking it just 435 miles from the comet's nucleus.

Mission control at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, broadcast live coverage of the event on NASA Television's Media Channel. Controllers broke into applause after hearing of the success.

The agency's EPOXI Deep Impact spacecraft was expected to use two imagers and an infrared instrument to acquire data about a tiny comet named Hartley 2 as it traveled at speeds of more than 27,000 miles per hour.

Scientists are still working to determine whether there was any damage to the spacecraft as the peanut-shaped comet passed by.

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They hope to learn to more about comets from five images detailing the close approach.

"Those early images may not be the 'money shot,' but we on the science team will prize them just as well, as they will help us further understand the nature of comets," said EPOXI principal investigator Mike A'Hearn of the University of Maryland, College Park, in a NASA statement. "We certainly have our hands full. The images are full of great cometary data, and that's what we hoped for."

The images are expected to depict the comet nucleus as little more than a point of light with a fuzzy coma, a gaseous cloud, surrounding it.

"It was just incredible," Ed Weiler, associate administrator of the Science Missions Directorate for NASA, said of the encounter.

Five years after NASA launched an 800-pound projectile into a comet in an effort to study its contents, the same spacecraft that launched the missile tracked Hartley 2 on Thursday.

It is the first spacecraft to have visited two comets.

NASA officials expressed hope that such missions will inspire young people to get into the field of space exploration.

 
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