NASA Set to Launch First Comet Impact Probe

Dec 14, 2004
Deep Impact's solar panels are opened for testing. Credit: NASA

Launch and flight teams are in final preparations for the planned January liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., of NASA's Deep Impact spacecraft. The mission is designed for a six-month, one-way, 431 million kilometer (268 million mile) voyage. Deep Impact will deploy a probe that essentially will be "run over" by the nucleus of comet Tempel 1 at approximately 37,000 kph (23,000 mph).

"From central Florida to the surface of a comet in six months is almost instant gratification from a deep space mission viewpoint," said Rick Grammier, Deep Impact project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, Calif. "It is going to be an exciting mission, and we can all witness its culmination together as Deep Impact provides the planet with its first man-made celestial fireworks on our nation's birthday, July 4th," he said.

The fireworks will be courtesy of a 1-by-1-meter (39-by-39 inches) copper-fortified probe. It is designed to obliterate itself, as it excavates a crater possibly large enough to swallow the Roman Coliseum. Before, during and after the demise of this 372-kilogram (820-pound) impactor, a nearby spacecraft will be watching the 6-kilometer (3.7-mile) wide comet nucleus, collecting pictures and data of the event.

"We will be capturing the whole thing on the most powerful camera to fly in deep space," said University of Maryland astronomy professor Dr. Michael A'Hearn, Deep Impact's principal investigator. "We know so little about the structure of cometary nuclei that we need exceptional equipment to ensure that we capture the event, whatever the details of the impact turn out to be," he explained.

Imagery and other data from the Deep Impact cameras will be sent back to Earth through the antennas of the Deep Space Network. But they will not be the only eyes on the prize. NASA's Chandra, Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes will be observing from near-Earth space. Hundreds of miles below, professional and amateur astronomers on Earth will also be able to observe the material flying from the comet's newly formed crater.

Deep Impact will provide a glimpse beneath the surface of a comet, where material and debris from the solar system's formation remain relatively unchanged. Mission scientists are confident the project will answer basic questions about the formation of the solar system, by offering a better look at the nature and composition of the celestial travelers we call comets.

"Understanding conditions that lead to the formation of planets is a goal of NASA's mission of exploration," said Andy Dantzler, acting director of the Solar System division at NASA Headquarters, Washington. "Deep Impact is a bold, innovative and exciting mission which will attempt something never done before to try to uncover clues about our own origins."

With a closing speed of about 37,000 kph (23,000 mph), what of the washing machine-sized impactor and its mountain-sized quarry?

"In the world of science, this is the astronomical equivalent of a 767 airliner running into a mosquito," said Don Yeomans, a Deep Impact mission scientist at JPL. "It simply will not appreciably modify the comet's orbital path. Comet Tempel 1 poses no threat to the Earth now or in the foreseeable future," he added.

Ball Aerospace & Technologies in Boulder, Colo., built NASA's Deep Impact spacecraft. It was shipped to Florida Oct. 17 to begin final preparations for launch. Liftoff is scheduled for Jan. 8 at 1:39:50 p.m. EST, with another opportunity 40 minutes later.

Principal Investigator A'Hearn leads the mission from the University of Maryland, College Park. JPL manages the Deep Impact project for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters. Deep Impact is a mission in NASA's Discovery Program of moderately priced solar system exploration missions.

Explore further: Going a long way to do a quick data collection

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Gullies on Vesta suggest past water-mobilized flows

Jan 23, 2015

(Phys.org)—Protoplanet Vesta, visited by NASA's Dawn spacecraft from 2011 to 2013, was once thought to be completely dry, incapable of retaining water because of the low temperatures and pressures at its ...

Rosetta data give closest-ever look at a comet

Jan 22, 2015

On Nov. 12, 2014, the European Space Agency's Rosetta mission made history when its Philae lander touched down on the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. While this exciting technical achievement ...

NOAA's DSCOVR to provide 'EPIC' views of Earth

Jan 07, 2015

NASA has contributed two Earth science instruments for NOAA's space weather observing satellite called the Deep Space Climate Observatory or DSCOVR, set to launch in January 2015. One of the instruments called ...

A timeline of deep-space comet encounters

Nov 10, 2014

12th November 2014. That is the date in which Rosetta, led by the European Space Agency, will release its lander Philae to touchdown on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in outer space.

Recommended for you

Going a long way to do a quick data collection

3 hours ago

Like many a scientist before me, I have spent this week trying to grow a crystal. I wasn't fussy, it didn't have to be a single crystal – a smush of something would have done – just as long as it had ...

How are planets formed?

4 hours ago

How did the Solar System's planets come to be? The leading theory is something known as the "protoplanet hypothesis", which essentially says that very small objects stuck to each other and grew bigger and ...

What's happening in the universe right now?

4 hours ago

There are some topics that get a little frustrating in their pedantry, but can really draw attention to the grand scope and mechanics in our Universe. This is definitely one of them.

Japan to launch new spy satellite

8 hours ago

Japan's government said it will launch a back-up spy satellite on Sunday, after cancelling an earlier lift-off due to bad weather.

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.