Comets to Help Us Explore the Solar System and Possibly Beyond?

May 18, 2011; 1:22 PM ET
A comet, whose center has a changing rotational rate, has been observed for the first time, according to the Planetary Science Institute researcher.
These findings, as well as information gleaned from a recent NASA EPOXI spacecraft flyby of Comet 103P/Hartley 2, are expected to offer new insights as researchers strive to better understand comets and the role they could possibly play in aiding human solar system exploration, said Nalin H. Samarasinha, senior scientist at PSI and lead author of a paper titled “Rotation of Comet 103P/Hartley 2 from Structures in the Coma” that appears in Astrophysical Journal Letters.
“Understanding the makeup of comets has immediate relevance to planetary exploration efforts. Small bodies of the solar system such as asteroids and comets could potentially act as way stations, as well as to supply needed resources, for the human exploration of the solar system,” Samarasinha said. “For this purpose, it is necessary to know the properties and the character of these objects to maximize our investment.”
Another aspect of comets was observed. Information on the makeup of Hartley 2 gleaned from this research and the EPOXI flyby, and similar research on additional comets, could offer clues researchers need to determine the best way to deal with a comet on a collision course with Earth.
“Although extremely rare, comets can collide with Earth. This could cause regional or global damage to the environment and to life on Earth. However, fortunately for the first time, we are on the threshold of our technical know how to mitigate such a hazardous impact,” Samarasinha said. “In order to do that we need to know the material properties of comets. The most appropriate mitigation strategy for a strong rigid body is different from that for a weakly bound agglomerate.”

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