NASA today announced the end of operations for the Deep Impact spacecraft, history’s most traveled deep-space comet hunter, after trying unsuccessfully for more than a month to regain contact with the spacecraft.
UMD scientists – who helped conceive the mission, bring it to reality and keep it going years longer than originally planned—say it is a big loss, but find great satisfaction that Deep Impact exceeded all expectations and that the science derived from it transformed our understanding of comets.
“The impact on comet Tempel 1, the flyby of comet Hartley 2, and the remote sensing of comet Garradd have led to so many surprising results that there is a complete rethinking of our understanding of the formation of comets and of how they work. These small, icy remnants of the formation of our solar system are much more varied, both one from another and even from one part to another of a single comet, than we had ever anticipated,” said University of Maryland astronomer Michael A’Hearn, who led the Deep Impact science team from the successful Deep Impact proposal to its unanticipated completion.
NASA’s Deep Impact spacecraft has acquired its first images of comet C/2012 S1 (ISON). The images were taken by the spacecraft’s Medium-Resolution Imager over a 36-hour period on Jan. 17 and 18, 2013, from a distance of 493 million miles (793 million kilometers). Many scientists anticipate a bright future for comet ISON; the spaceborne conglomeration of dust and ice may put on quite a show as it passes through the inner solar system this fall.
“This is the fourth comet on which we have performed science observations and the farthest point from Earth from which we’ve tried to transmit data on a comet,” said Tim Larson, project manager for the Deep Impact spacecraft at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “The distance limits our bandwidth, so it’s a little like communicating through a modem after being used to DSL. But we’re going to coordinate our science collection and playback so we maximize our return on this potentially spectacular comet.”
The latest analysis of data from NASA’s Deep Impact spacecraft shows that comet 103P/Hartley 2 is hyperactive in terms of the material it spews out, compared to the other comets observed up close to date. The comet also shows surprising diversity – ice on the comet’s sunlit surface is found in patches that are isolated from areas of dust. In addition, one lobe of the dog-bone shaped comet may have lost much more of the primordial material from the formation of the comet than the other, suggesting that Hartley 2 was originally two comets that came together in a gentle collision. Mike A’Hearn and Lori Feaga will be presenting their findings at the EPSC-DPS Joint Meeting 2011 in Nantes, France.
Deep Impact made its closest encounter of Hartley 2 on 4 November 2010. Over the past year, the science team has been pouring over the data to gain a more detailed understanding of the processes that drive the comet’s activity.
“Hartley 2 works differently from Tempel 1, which was encountered by Deep Impact in 2005 and from Wild 2, which was observed by the Stardust mission. It ejects a huge amount of material for its size. Halley, which was observed by the Giotto mission lies somewhere in the middle of the spectrum of activity. Since the encounter, we have been able to dig deeper into the data and have provided more evidence of how ice and dust is released from the nucleus,” said A’Hearn, the Principal Investigator of Deep Impact’s mission extension, EPOXI.