Collision Course

Hawaii gets a front-row seat for
NASA’s Deep Impact mission

ISLE STARGAZERS are anticipating some celestial fireworks tomorrow night when a spacecraft collides with a comet as part of a historic experiment to study the origins of the solar system.

At events on Oahu, Maui and the Big Island, the public is encouraged to join astronomers worldwide in observing the unique encounter between Comet Tempel 1 and an impactor from the Deep Impact spacecraft at 7:52 p.m.

"We don't know exactly what is going to be happen," said Robert Joseph, University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy faculty chairman. "To be there at Sunset on the Beach or wherever else you are, watching in real time and seeing what happens with this spacecraft is one of the most exciting things one can do in the modern world."

Institute Director Rolf-Peter Kudritzki said, "Hawaii is one of the very few places in the world where we can witness the event live."

The $333 million mission was designed for telescopes atop Mauna Kea and Haleakala, and Hawaii astronomers had an important role in the development of the mission and technology, he said.

Residents should look toward the west for Jupiter, the brightest planet in the sky, and Spica in the constellation Virgo to the south. The comet, whipping through space at 23,000 mph, will be near them. It is too faint to see without a telescope, but a flash at the impact might be seen with the naked eye, the astronomers said.

The Deep Impact spacecraft was launched in January with two parts -- a larger "fly-by" spacecraft and a smaller "impactor" vehicle comprising mostly copper.

About 24 hours before the impact, the 39-inch battery-powered impactor will be released into the comet's orbital path and navigate on its own. It has a camera to relay images of the comet's nucleus before it is wiped out in the crash.

Comets are big dirty snowballs with water, gases and other primordial material locked inside from formation of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago.

They are "leftover bits and pieces that never made it into planetary form," said UH astronomer Karen Meech, one of 13 members of the Deep Impact Science Team.

The solid part of the comet could be a few miles across, but tails can be millions of miles across, she said. "They're some of the biggest things in the solar system."

The NASA Discovery Mission is designed to dig deep into the comet's nucleus to expose secrets preserved from the early solar system and learn more about Earth's history, she said.

Energy equivalent to about 5 tons of TNT will be produced in the crash to make a crater about seven stories deep and as big as a football field to reveal ancient material inside, she said.

Click to enlarge
Scientists hope the July 4 collision between the Deep Impact spacecraft and Tempel 1 will gouge a crater in the comet surface while an impactor and mothership collect near real-time data. If the $333 million mission is successful, Deep Impact will be the first spacecraft to touch the surface of a comet.

Another goal of the first-of-its-kind mission, Meech said, is to look at the process of how to make such a crater, "if we ever have to fend something off that might be coming toward Earth."

Meech, who spent 10 years gathering information and planning for the mission, said it was originally to be done for Chile's facilities because Hawaii's weather was risky.

But the fly-by spacecraft will have only 800 seconds to take pictures of the collision and new activity at the crater, she said.

A radio telescope is needed for communication with the spacecraft, and Chile has only one, while Hawaii has backup radio antennas in California and Australia, she said.

Fortunately, the weather outlook here is good for tomorrow night, she said, noting that it is not very good in Chile.

Meech, whose job is to coordinate ground-based observations for the mission, said more than 100 professional observatories worldwide will be focused on the event, as well as orbiting satellites and amateur telescopes.

"All the observatories are working together to pursue science but also to promote and share it with the public in cool ways," said Gary Fujihara, Institute for Astronomy science education and public outreach officer.

He said the institute is working with community partners on outreach events with the public, educators and students. "It's a great opportunity for students to do substantive science," he said.

Meech said, "Everything on Earth is coordinated at Mauna Kea. All observers in the world are linked so we can talk to each other."

They will communicate to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and they will be looking at the comet's dust and gas, the impact flash, chemicals, X-rays and molecules that might help them better understand composition of comets and the early solar system.

"The question is, Can we accomplish it?" Meech said. After hundreds of thousands of tests, she thinks it is a safe bet.

Deep Impact Mission (NASA)

University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy


Where to find Comet Tempel 1



Deep Impact

Public Events

On Oahu, tomorrow

Bishop Museum

The Comet Collision Countdown will start at 5:30 p.m. and continue until 10 p.m.; $3 admission with food and fireworks.

Activities will include planetarium shows between 5:30 and 8 p.m., "Sky Tours" and telescope viewing with the Hawaiian Astronomical Society and University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy faculty and students from sunset to 10 p.m.

Special lectures will be given every half-hour starting at 5:30 p.m. by these UH astronomers: Toby Owen, "Did Comet Showers Cause Our Flowers?"; Gareth Wynn-Williams, "Deep Impact -- An Overview"; Mark Willman, "Searching for New Earths"; and Jeff Morgan, "Pan-STARRS: A New Way to Search for Near-Earth Objects."

Contact: Carolyn Kaichi, 847-8203.

Sunset on the Beach at Waikiki Beach

Featuring a Deep Impact event overview by UH Institute for Astronomy Faculty Chairman Robert Joseph, followed by a live feed from NASA-TV just before the encounter. "The Dish," a movie about the four-day Apollo XI mission in July 1969, will begin at 8 p.m. but could be interrupted for updates. The Dish is a 1,000-ton Australian radio telescope the size of a football field.

Contact: Mona Wood, 218-5546.

University of Hawaii astronomer Karen Meech gave details at UH's Institute for Astronomy yesterday about NASA's Deep Impact Comet Encounter.

On the Big Island, today

Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station

"The Universe Tonight," a public lecture by Harold Butner of the Joint Astronomy Centre speaking on "Cracking the Shell: What Might the Inside of a Comet Look Like?" 6 p.m.

Contact: Douglas Pierce-Price, 808-969-6524.

On the Big Island, tomorrow

University of Hawaii-Hilo

UCB Room 100, Deep Impact Outreach Program beginning at 6 p.m. with speakers giving presentations and commentary during the evening on topics such as planetary astronomy, comets, solar system evolution and astrobiology.

Speakers will be Todd May, NASA Discovery Program manager; Shari Asplund, NASA Discovery Program education and outreach manager; Cathy Ishida, Subaru Telescope astronomer; and Richard Crowe, UH-Hilo physics and astronomy professor.

Near real-time images will be shown of Comet Tempel 1 and the Deep Impact Mission. Astronomers observing the encounter on Mauna Kea and observatory support staff will be featured in video conferences.

Contact: Gary Fujihara, 808-932-2328.

On Maui, tomorrow

Maui Community College

A panel of speakers will discuss Deep Impact in Room 105, Kaaike Building, starting at 6:30 p.m. They will include a NASA payload mission specialist, UH and University of New Mexico researchers, and a Kalaheo High School educator. Near real-time images of the comet will be shown as seen from the Faulkes Telescope on Haleakala, and there will be a live feed from NASA-TV.

A videoconference will be presented with educators and students from Iceland, Great Britain and Hawaii who are collaborating on studies of the impact at the Faulkes Telescope.

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