Spacecraft beams back stunning pictures of comet

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A NASA spacecraft has sent back stunning pictures of a comet after a close encounter in deep space.

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 away from Earth when the Deep Impact craft, hurtling through space, flew within 435 miles of comet Hartley 2.

It is only the fifth time that a comet's core has been viewed up close. Studying them could provide clues to how Earth and the planets formed and evolved.

At roughly one mile wide, Hartley 2 is the smallest comet to be photographed up close. But only time will tell what secrets it

Principal investigor Michael A'Hearn said: "The first thing everyone wants to know about the scientific return from a mission is how much it's increased our knowledge, but of course the scientific work is just beginning now. The engineers did a fantastic job of getting us data. Now we have to make sense of it to advance the science."

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