Rendezvous With A Comet

One day and eleven hours from now, the Deep Impact spacecraft with crash into Comet Tempel 1.

That’s just crazy. Stop and think about it for a second.

Here’s a comet, tiny in the general scheme of things, which is moving pretty quickly through space. The impactor, the part of the spacecraft that will hit the comet, will be closing at 22,000 mph (if I’ve done my km/s to mph conversions correctly).

By the time it’s all done, the impactor will have blown a whole somewhere between the size of a house and football field into the comet’s side! Gas and debris should be ejected back into space.

Flyby spacecraft – nearly as large as a Volkswagen Beetle automobile.

Impactor spacecraft – about the same dimensions as a typical living room coffee table.

As it approaches, the impactor will be looking for a spot somewhere between the greatest mass and brightest point, making sure it doesn’t hit the edge of the comet and break off a piece or bounce back into space. All of this will be done autonomously since it’s too far from Earth for us to ‘drive’ the spacecraft in real time.

This crash will be monitored so scientists can try and get a better feel for a comet’s makeup. Comets formed early in the universe’s pre-history, so their makeup should be a clue to what went on then and how we got to where we are today.

The element copper isn’t expected to be found in the comet, so the impactor is made of it. That way, copper can easily be excluded from the scientific revelations that will surely come.

Back when I hosted Inside Space I learned one thing that serves me well for this mission. All extraterrestrial objects are shaped like potatoes. Don’t ask why. I don’t know. But, it’s true!

It’s possible when the impactor hits Comet Tempel that it will flouresce enough for us to see it with the naked eye. More than likely though, we’ll have to depend on NASA and their onboard cameras to get us the video sometime over the next few days.

Luckily, there’s no governmental agency better at multimedia and the Internet than NASA (and I only shudder to think what it costs all of us). There’s a pretty good Deep Impact website with everything you need to know – and then some.

It’s still pretty cool.

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