Comet Hartley 2 leaves a trail of fluffy snowballs

Comet Hartley 2 as seen by WISE. Data from the infrared telescope revealed that the comet's trail, seen here as the long, thin yellow line, consists of particles as large as golf balls. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

Recent photos taken NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer or WISE has revealed that Comet Hartley 2 is dropping golf-ball sized fluffy ice balls in its wake as it orbits the sun. Dust following in the wakes of comets isn’t new, but scientists were surprised to see that the pieces seen close up by the EPOXI spacecraft last year survived long enough to give the comet a ‘bumpy’ trail.

Although Earth isn’t expected to cross through Hartley 2’s debris trail anytime soon, our passage through the trails of other comets produce some of our favorite meteor showers like the summer Perseids and winter Geminids. Perhaps someday our orbits will ‘cross paths in the night’ and if we’re lucky, a few persistent snowballs might create a jaw-dropping fireball meteor or two.

Cassiopeia the Queen is on the rise again during the second half of July at nightfall. Look for this celestial W in the northeastern sky. Created with Stellarium

Last night the moon was full and sky hazy, but our group could still make out the familiar W of Cassiopeia up in the northeastern sky. The time was around 11 p.m., and we were standing out on a dock over Boulder Lake north of Duluth taking in the moonlight and the loon calls. Lovely night. Although fall’s still a ways off, the Big W is a reminder of the season that’s waiting in the wings.

Our group was participating in the Experience the Night program that started at 8:30 p.m. and wrapped up this morning at 6. Several people spoke on night-related topics in their area of expertise, so we had a spider expert, a University of Minnesota etymologist, a birder and an astronomy guy (yours truly). The passion of others, whether for moths, glowing fungi or frogs, always helps us to appreciate the creative abandon of nature.

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About astrobob

My name is Bob King and I work at the Duluth News Tribune in Duluth, Minn. as a photographer and photo editor. I'm also an amateur astronomer and have been keen on the sky since age 11. My modest credentials include membership in the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) where I'm a regular contributor, International Meteorite Collectors Assn. and Arrowhead Astronomical Society. I also teach community education astronomy classes at our local planetarium.

2 thoughts on “Comet Hartley 2 leaves a trail of fluffy snowballs

  1. Hey astrobob I know this is off topic but do you have any info about 2005 YU55 I would like to know more facts before doomsayers take over

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