The Gazette (Colorado Springs)
August 18, 2002
NASA sets sights on intercepting comet
Impact expected to shed light on cosmos formation
By Barry Bortnick, The Gazette
BOULDER - Humans have landed crafts on our moon, other planets and even a distant asteroid. But no one has fired a rocket into one of the most majestic of heavenly bodies, a comet.
That may change July 4, 2005, when a team of Ball Aerospace engineers lights up the cosmos and smashes a spaceship into the Tempel 1 comet as it streaks toward Earth.
The $279 million NASA project, known as Deep Impact, aims to dig a seven-story, football field-sized crater into the comet.
The impact will create a plume of debris that will be observed and analyzed by a second craft positioned several hundred miles away. That may help scientists learn more about Tempel 1's composition.
Deep Impact could help explain how the cosmos was formed billions of years ago because comets are thought to contain material from the dawn of solar systems.
"We believe these comets go back to the prime building blocks of the universe," said John Marriott, Ball Aerospace's project manager on Deep Impact. "It will be cool to see what the comet is made of."
Both Deep Impact spacecraft will carry cameras and allow scientists to observe the action in near real time.
If all goes as planned, amateur astronomers also can watch the drama as they follow Tempel 1's movements about 140 million miles from home.
"We believe we can optimize the impact over the U.S., so people can see it," Marriott said. "When we impact this thing, we may open up a new hot area, so you will see a bright light all of a sudden. When the material catches the sunlight, it will make the tail look a lot brighter."
When the first suicide spaceship dives into Tempel 1, the other craft will head into the comet's tail for further analysis, Marriott said.
No one knows how the second ship will handle its trip into the tail.
"It could be very hazardous to go through the tail, but we don't have Star Trek-type shields to protect the flyby craft," Marriott said.
Besides helping explain the universe's origins, Deep Impact could teach researchers how to break up or divert the path of space objects on a collision course with Earth.
"The project shows we can impact a foreign body," Marriott said. "And if a future threat (from a rogue asteroid, for example) is identified, we will have the technology available to intercept it."
Rocket the mission in brief
Launch is scheduled for Jan. 2, 2004, from the Kennedy Space Flight Center at Cape Canaveral, Fla. An unpiloted $65 million Boeing Delta II rocket will send two craft, an impactor and a flyby ship into space.
The dual spacecraft will orbit the sun for 12 months.
In January 2005, it will pass by the moon and the instruments will be tested before it heads toward Tempel 1.
The spacecraft will spend the next six months moving into the path of Tempel 1, whose roughly 2-mile radius makes it a little less than half the size of Washington, D.C.
On July 3, 2005, the impactor and flyby craft will separate. The comet will overtake the impactor and destroy it July 4, providing researchers and observers with a spectacular light show.
Barry Bortnick covers general assignments and may be reached at (303)333-1180 or bortnick[at]gazette.com