A NASA spacecraft sped past a small comet Thursday, beaming pictures back to Earth that gave scientists a rare close-up view of its center. Mission controllers burst into applause upon seeing images from the flyby that revealed a peanut-shaped comet belching jets of poisonous gases. The close encounter occurred 13 million miles from Earth when the Deep Impact craft, hurtling through space, flew within 435 miles of comet Hartley 2. It's only the fifth time that a comet's core has been viewed up close.
Scientists are interested in comets because they're icy leftovers from the formation of the solar system about 4.5 billion years ago. Studying them could provide clues to how Earth and the planets formed and evolved. Thursday's flyby is actually an encore mission for Deep Impact. It set off cosmic fireworks on July 4, 2005, when it fired a copper probe that crashed into comet Tempel 1. The high-speed collision spewed a cloud of debris into space, giving scientists their first peek of the interior.