- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 30, 2005

Fireworks should come early this Fourth of July, courtesy of NASA. At approximately 1:52 a.m. Monday the Tempel 1 comet is scheduled to collide with NASA’s Deep Impact probe millions of miles in to outer space. Scientists are hoping the explosion will be visible from Earth, at least to those watching the night sky on the Pacific Coast. From the perspective of the Deep Impact spacecraft, coasting along 300 miles away from the collision, the spectacle should be awesome.

If all goes according to plan, the early fireworks will be a dramatic end to Deep Impact’s six-month, 268-million mile journey that began in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Tomorrow, the spacecraft will jettison its 820-pound copper probe directly in the path of Tempel’s trajectory. The next day, at a speed of 23,000 mph, the 5-mile-long Tempel will overtake the 1-meter-long probe in an explosion of ice and space dust. NASA expects the resulting crater bored into Tempel’s surface to range anywhere from the size of a two-story house to a football field. The spacecraft will then have about 13 minutes, scientists estimate, to take images of the collision and what lies beneath the comet’s outer crust.

The mission is unprecedented. “In our quest of a great scientific payoff, we are attempting something never before done at speeds and distances that are truly out of this world,” said Rick Grammier, Deep Impact’s project manager. And success is not guaranteed. Earlier this week, for instance, the Hubble Space Telescope captured images of massive outbursts emanating from Tempel’s coma — the cloud of dust and gas that surrounds the comet nucleus. Scientists believe these outbursts will occur more frequently as Tempel gets closer to the sun, potentially endangering Deep Impact’s approach. “The whole mission is riding on what happens in about 800 seconds,” warned Dr. Michael A’Hearn, the project’s principal investigator.

Deep Impact is the eighth mission in NASA’s Discovery Program, which aims to learn more about the origin of the solar system. Scientists believe comets formed from the gas and dust left over after the creation of the solar system. While they know the outer crust of a comet is mostly ice, scientists have never glimpsed the inner nucleus. What they find inside might also help us prepare for the day when a comet threatens to strike earth, even though Tempel poses no such threat.

Let’s hope that Deep Impact brings a little Fourth of July cheer to the outer reaches of space.

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