According to NASA engineers, their veteran Deep Impact spacecraft is experiencing technical difficulties, losing contact with Earth between Aug. 11 and Aug. 14. NASA operatives seem powerless to harness the system, leading to fears that the spacecraft could be in considerable peril, as it spirals out of control. Recent attempts by the space agency team to reestablish communication have, thus far, failed.
Deep Impact’s Legacy
Deep Impact was famous for its role in launching a copper-reinforced probe into the heart of a comet, called Tempel 1, during 2005. The probe weighed approximately one third of a tonne, and was the size of a washing machine. Astronomers had hurled the probe towards the comet to determine the size of the resultant impact crater and, therefore, the strength of the comet’s crust.
The debris thrown from the violent collision was subsequently collected for further investigation. Researchers associate comets as being like dirty snowballs, residual artifacts that were released when planets were first forming, billions of years ago. It was hoped that analysis of this material could provide insight into some of the mysteries of our young Solar System.
The existing Deep Impact space vehicle was then used as a part of the EPOXI mission, which involved a new set of directives. It first began investigating planets outside of our solar system (exoplanets), which were transiting in front of their host stars, before moving on to perform a flyby of comet 103P/Hartley.
Alas, recent attempts by NASA to control the spacecraft’s flailing movements have resulted in failure. The space agency has recently sought to put the craft into a state of hibernation, but to no avail.
According to engineers, the Deep Impact craft has experienced a software-based communications malfunction, which has reset the craft’s onboard computer. An official press release, issued by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), states the computers are now constantly restarting themselves, preventing the craft’s thrusters and boosters from maintaining altitude. The team remains committed to fixing this technical issue, in a desperate bid to regain control and resume normal operations. However, the spacecraft remains in great peril, unless NASA can successfully communicate with the device.
According to a recent announcement in the Nature News blog, NASA are preparing to resolve the problem this weekend, but still need time to establish which one of its antennas they are going to broadcast a signal to (high-gain or low-gain). The fact that Deep Impact is no longer holding altitude makes it increasingly difficult for NASA to correct the software glitch, however, since they are unsure of the antenna’s positioning.
Potential Power Loss
However, one of the most significant hurdles involves the spacecraft’s array of solar panels. If these panels become damaged, or are not the correct orientation to receive maximal sunlight, NASA may eventually run out of time. The spacecraft’s batteries are likely to last a number of months with limited solar power; however, if the panels are facing the wrong direction, entirely, the device may only last mere days.
Deep Impact Principle Investigator, Professor Michael A’Hearn, based at the University of Maryland, stipulates, once the battery power has drained completely, the spacecraft cannot be reinitiated and will be lost for good. Speaking to Space.com, A’Hearn had the following to say on the matter:
“How long we have depends on the state the spacecraft is in, and we don’t yet know that… Could be that it is too late already – could be we have another month or more.”
Deep Impact was also the first spacecraft to observe ISON, representing the fourth comet the craft has observed since its launch. Deep Impact was able to collect and transmit a series of images of ISON, during mid-January of this year, which were then compiled to generate footage of the comet streaming through space.
NASA was expecting Deep Impact to provide them with further imagery of comet ISON, captured during August. Alas, much of this data will be lost, if the crew are unable to resume control of the spacecraft. Although Deep Impact appears to be facing considerable peril, one can only hope NASA are able to find a means of communicating with the craft to salvage both its mission and data.
By: James Fenner
NASA EPOXI Website Link