The plume of debris that spilled from the comet after it collided with the space probe is as fine as talcum powder, suggesting the comet formed gradually, scientists said on Friday.

Comets are believed to be the frozen leftover building blocks of the solar system, formed when a huge cloud of gas and dust collapsed about 4.5 billion years ago. Studying them could provide clues to the birth of the solar system.

 

Soon after the 379kg probe hit Tempel 1, scientists detected evidence of water, carbon dioxide and organic substances spewing from the comet. The high-speed collision produced two flashes of light and hurled a plume of fine, powdery dust from the comet thousands of miles into space.

 

"This probably means the material in the comet came together very gently," said Michael A'Hearn, an astronomer at the University of Maryland and the mission's principal investigator. "If it melted and resolidified, it would have the strength of solid ice."

 

Dust to settle

 

Scientists are waiting for the dust from the larger-than-expected debris cloud to settle before they can get their first glimpse at the inside of the comet and determine the size and depth of the crater.

 

The comet is believed to be
abundant in water

They said the crater was larger than a house and possibly as big as a football stadium.

 

Comets are believed to be abundant in water, and astronomers were surprised to find a lack of water vapour after the collision.

 

Preliminary findings by a science instrument aboard a NASA satellite in Earth orbit showed Tempel 1 released about 247.5kg of water per second, similar to the amount before the impact, suggesting the comet contains more dust than ice.

 

"It's pretty clear that this event did not produce a gusher," said Gary Melnick of the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics.

 

Contradiction

 

The findings appear to contradict results by the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton Observatory, which this week found evidence of increased water in the comet's emissions after the impact.

 

The impactor probe was equipped with a camera and beamed back close-up pictures of the comet before slamming into the surface at a 25-degree angle. The last picture was taken three seconds before the probe was obliterated, revealing crater-like features on the comet's surface.

 

The collision and aftermath was also observed by the Deep Impact spacecraft which had released the probe on a collision course with Tempel 1.