July 04, 2005

Happy Fourth of July ... and a cosmic hole-in-one

Early in 2005, I wrote, quoting liberally from a neat article in Slate, about the clinical aerospace ju-jitsu required to get Cassini-Huygens to Saturn's moon Titan.

Today, on July 4 (happy fourth of July, U.S. readers!), NASA hit a comet with a probe. Let that sink in for a moment. The comet, Tempel 1, is about half the size of Manhattan and was travelling at 37,000 km per hour when it hit the probe, about the size of a coffee table, which had been launched from a larger vessel and maneuvered itself into position -- meaning directly into the path of the oncoming comet -- using its own jets. The probe's impact left a crater "anywhere from the size of a large house to a football stadium and between two and 14 storeys deep" (Globe and Mail). The impact probe snapped photos as late as 3 seconds before impact, and the larger launching vessel carried on shooting with a close fly-by of the impact and aftermath. The mission, launched back in January when Cassini-Huygens was approaching Titan, was named Deep Impact -- apparently only coincidentally matching the movie of the same name and subject matter.

No matter how you slice it, this was an unbelievable feat (representatives of the ESA readily admitted as such). And NASA definitely gets extra style points for nailing the impact on the July 4 holiday. Now that is integrated communications planning.

What's the upshot of all this? After a series of high-profile disasters (e.g. Challenger, Columbia) and uber-expensive failures (e.g. European Mars probe), the unbelievable, thread-the-needle dual successes of Cassini-Huygens and Deep Impact may allow space science and exploration to recapture the imaginations of generations young and old.

For more information: NASA Deep Impact site
Photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UMD

Posted by anatole at July 4, 2005 11:01 AM