Dancing among the stars: UMD space mission in final round for chance to 'Jitterbug' on comet

Jun 08, 2012 By Lee Tune
Credit: NASA/GSFC/University of Maryland

(Phys.org) -- Today a University of Maryland-led team of scientists made its final-round pitch to NASA for a robotic space mission proposal known as Comet Hopper that is one of three finalists vying for selection as a new planetary mission in NASA's Discovery Program.

University of Maryland Astronomer Jessica Sunshine, the principal investigator (PI) for Comet Hopper, headed her team's pitch, with a supporting presentation from University of Maryland President Wallace Loh, who swung through Colorado on his way to an innovation tour of Taiwan and South Korea that is designed to lay the groundwork for new UMD research and educational partnerships in those countries.

"We've had some amazing cometary flybys," says Sunshine, "but they have given us only snapshots of one point in time of what a comet is like. Comets are exciting because they are dynamic, changing throughout their orbits. With this new , we will start out with a comet that is in the cold, outer reaches of its orbit and watch its activity come alive as it moves closer and closer to the Sun."

The Comet Hopper mission would study the evolution of comet 46P/Wirtanen by landing on it multiple times and observing changes in the comet as it interacts with the sun.

President Loh calls Comet Hopper "a great project. It's a 13-year big science mission to further our understanding of the origins of the solar system. The spacecraft would carry instruments made by our students, and the mission would build terrific STEM awareness and education into the project through education outreach efforsts such as lesson plans beamed live to K-12 students," Loh says.

In addition to Sunshine, additional Maryland scientists on the team include Deputy PI Michael A'Hearn, who led NASA's Deep Impact and EPOXI comet missions. The Comet Hopper mission would be managed by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. Other partners include , KinetX, the Johns Hopkins University Laboratory, University of Bern, Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Discovery Communications.

Comet Hopper would observe the comet by making detailed in situ measurements from various locations on the surface and in the innermost coma as the comet moves through its orbit. The innermost coma is the atmosphere of the comet just off the surface of the nucleus where outgassing and jets originate.

"We would extensively explore the surface of a comet. This is something that has never been done before," said Joe Nuth, Comet Hopper project scientist at NASA Goddard. "We know that there are volatiles (molecules that easily evaporate at normal temperatures) inside a comet. We would go to places that are relatively flat and are likely hiding volatiles. Comet Hopper could be called a reconnaissance mission for an upcoming Comet Nucleus Sample Return mission, which has been deemed a high-priority development effort by the Decadal Survey."

The Comet Hopper team and President Loh made their presentations to NASA representatives who were doing an on-site vist to the Lockheed Martin facility in Denver where the mission spacecraft will be built if Comet Hopper is selected. The timetable for NASA's decision is not yet available.

The two planetary missions against which Comet Hopper is competing in this final selection round are:

-- Geophysical Monitoring Station (GEMS) would study the structure and composition of the interior of Mars and advance understanding of the formation and evolution of terrestrial planets. Bruce Banerdt of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., is principal investigator. JPL would manage the project.

-- Titan Mare Explorer (TiME) would provide the first direct exploration of an ocean environment beyond Earth by landing in, and floating on, a large methane-ethane sea on Saturn's moon Titan. Ellen Stofan of Proxemy Research Inc. in Gaithersburg, Md., is principal investigator. Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., would manage the project.

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