Comet Crashing Mission Prepped For Launch

BOULDER, COLORADO -- Engineers here at Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation are readying NASA's Deep Impact mission for shipping this month to Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Next stop: Comet Tempel 1.

A NASA Discovery-class spacecraft, the Deep Impact mission features the "Flyby" spacecraft that releases the "Impactor", hardware destined to run into with Comet Tempel 1. The spacecraft pair will give scientists their first close-up look at the interior of a comet.

Both Deep Impact spacecraft have completed the final environmental testing phase, a key step before liftoff of the mission this coming December. The two Deep Impact spacecraft have undergone extensive thermal vacuum, electromagnetic conductance, electromagnetic interference, vibration and acoustic testing.

Cosmic rear-ender

Objective of the mission is to study the pristine interior of a comet by excavating a huge crater in Comet Tempel 1.

Once set free from the Flyby spacecraft, the Impactor may form a football stadium-sized crater in the comet that could be as deep as 14-stories.

This cosmic rear-ender comes on America's Independence Day: July 4, 2005.

The Impactor spacecraft will be vaporized upon impact with the comet. Both comet and spacecraft will be traveling at closing speeds in excess of 23,000 miles per hour upon impact.

Witness to the impact

Deep Impact's telescopes, cameras and spectrometer aboard the Flyby spacecraft will witness the impact and return data on the pristine material in the crater and the material ejected by the impact. The High Resolution Imager aboard the Flyby spacecraft will be one of the largest interplanetary telescopes ever flown in order to record the details of the collision.

Meanwhile, the Impactor spacecraft will also provide close-encounter photos of the comet just prior to impact, giving scientists the most complete view of a comet to date.

Getting a first view of pristine material inside a comet should prove invaluable to the scientific community.

Archeological dig

In a very real sense, the Deep Impact mission is an archeological dig.

Comets contain, in a frozen, well-preserved environment, the interstellar materials that were present at the time our solar system was formed. Comets are thought to have brought the organic materials necessary for life to develop on Earth.

The surface of comets is unknown and could range from a hard, icy crust to thin and fragile ice held together by gases or liquid. Deep Impact is the first mission to make contact with a comet's surface, but instead of landing a spacecraft on Tempel 1, the spacecraft will make a small "dent" in the large comet to reveal what is underneath the black, icy surface.

Deep Impact's principal investigator is Michael A'Hearn of the University of Maryland. The project has been underway since late 1999.

Ground observing parties

Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation, in association with the University of Maryland and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), is developing and integrating the Flyby spacecraft, the Impactor spacecraft, and science instruments, including two telescopes, two cameras and a spectrometer for analyzing the interior of the comet.

"There is a great deal of activity on the Deep Impact project these days and the project team is hard at work to track it all," reports Lucy McFadden, Deep Impact science team co-investigator at the University of Maryland.

A select number of ground-based telescopes will observe the Deep Impact encounter in July 2005, she added, and those observations will place Deep Impact mission data in perspective.

Deep Impact is the eighth mission in NASA's Discovery Program, and the first mission to ever attempt impact with a comet nucleus in an effort to probe beneath its surface.

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at:

Leonard David
Space Insider Columnist

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He has received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.