NASA Encounters Blizzard on Comet Hartley

“Neither asteroids, nor snowstorms, nor gloom of night will stay our spacecraft from the swift completion of their appointed rounds!” ~ tongue-in-cheek remark made by anonymous JPL engineer paraphrasing the old U.S. Post Office creed.

Jules Bergman, the Science Editor for ABC News once asked an astrophysicist working for Werner von Braun, what NASA expected to find in space. The scientist answered NASA wouldn’t be surprised at whatever they discovered out there, except the space agency didn’t expect a snowstorm or bug-eyed space monsters.

Recently, NASA ran headfirst into a snowstorm—or more accurately their comet-hunting spacecraft, Deep Impact, encountered what amounted to a space blizzard.

Early November 2010 the spacecraft maneuvered into a flyby past peanut-shaped Comet Hartley, approaching to within 435 miles of the deep space object. The craft transmitted back a series of stunning photos that revealed bright plumes of matter erupting from the comet’s irregular surface.

Peter H. Schultz, a Brown University professor working on the mission noted at a news conference about the spectacular photos, “To me, this whole thing looks like a snow globe that you’ve simply just shaken.”

The illuminated specks caught in the images of the comet are estimated to be from the size of golf balls to as large as basketballs. The matter is mostly frozen CO2, water and dust particles.

Despite being bombarded by the unexpected snowstorm, as it flew through the blizzard at 27,000mph, Deep Impact suffered no known damage.

Analysis of the light spectrum from the bright specks proved the matter was mostly carbon dioxide mixed with water ice.

Scientists that studied the photos surmised that the snow was being created by frozen carbon dioxide (CO2) that reverts to a gas at temperatures of minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit. As the CO2 thawed it turned into crystals—or a form of snowflakes—which streamed off the speeding comet. The pressure of the gas freed frozen water on the comet’s surface creating a snowstorm in space.

The NASA team suggested the ice could date as far back as the formation of the solar system.

A deputy principal investigator on the mission, Jessica M. Sunshine, explained, “We’re not seeing hail-size softballs or even ice cubes. What we’re seeing are fluffy aggregates of very small pieces of ice. And so, they’re akin more to maybe a dandelion puff that is very empty air that can be easily broken apart.”

According to information supplied by the mission profile literature, Deep Impact’s original mission to Comet Temple 1 during 2005 was revamped. NASA determined the spacecraft had plenty of maneuvering fuel available after the original rendezvous. Therefore the space agency decided to send Deep Impact off to a second comet.

Renaming the new mission “Epoxi,” an a combination of two acronyms: “Epoch,” or Extrasolar Planet Observation and Characterization, which is studying nearby stars known to have planets, and “Dixi,” or Deep Impact Extended Investigation, for the Comet Hartley fly-by.

Now that NASA has actually weathered a snowstorm in space can the bug-eyed space monsters be far behind?

Mission photos