NASA’s Deep Impact space probe is down and out, after experiencing technical issues and spiraling out of control. Alas, we now must bid farewell to the probe, which has performed a number of admirable voyages, chasing comets and hurling impactors, all in the name of space exploration.
Deep Impact Mission Achievements
Deep Impact was launched in 2005 to explore the structural integrity of a comet, named Tempel 1. It was hoped that slamming a 372 kilogram copper-reinforced probe into the
nucleus of the comet would demonstrate the durability and strength of its crust, through measurement of the resulting crater. Debris ejecta, released from the brutal impact, was then subsequently collected for analysis to study the composition of the icy mass.
Researchers characterize comets as “dirty snowballs,” produced whilst the very first planets were forming, some billions of years ago. Therefore, it was hoped that analysis of the retrieved debris could offer insight into the mysterious beginnings of our Solar System.
Further down the line, during late 2010, the Deep Impact spacecraft became a part of the EPOXI mission, involving an entirely new set of ambitions. Initially, Deep Impact investigated a number of exoplanets as they transited across their host stars, tracking and confirming their orbital movements. The craft was later assigned to perform a flyby of the 103P/Hartley comet.
Beginning in February, 2012, Deep Impact observed Comet Gerradd (C/2009 P1), before moving on to capture the very first magnificent images of Comet ISON (C/2012 S1), during the opening of this year. Deep Impact’s ISON images were then compiled to produce video footage of the body streaking through space, representing the fourth comet the spacecraft has observed since launch.
According to Space.com, Deep Impact collected images of Earth, the moon, and Mars and travelled a total distance of 4.7 billion miles, capturing approximately half a million images on its journey through space.
Software Glitches and Frozen Systems
NASA ground control teams lost contact with Deep Impact around Aug. 8, due to a software-based communications issue, resetting the probe’s onboard computer systems. In an official press release, issued by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Sep. 10, this technical fault led to the computers “continuously rebooting themselves.”
At this point, the team feared the vehicle would not hold altitude, since the computers were responsible for regulating the craft’s thrusters. This, in turn, made communication reestablishment increasingly unlikely, as the positioning of Deep Impact’s antennas was unpredictable.
Although the precise reason for the failure is unknown, without the correct orientation, it was believed Deep Impact would be unable to receive optimal sunlight to its solar panels. In the event of insufficient power, NASA maintains that both battery and propulsion systems could have become frozen.
Now, after months of attempting to restore communications, NASA has decided to officially terminate the mission. According to Reuters, Lindley Johnson, who was in charge of the project at NASA headquarters in Washington, had nothing but praise for the mission and its many amazing accomplishments:
“Despite this unexpected final curtain call, Deep Impact already achieved much more than ever was envisioned… Deep Impact has completely overturned what we thought we knew about comets and also provided a treasure trove of additional planetary science that will be the source data of research for years to come.”
Meanwhile, Michael A’Hearn, the Deep Impact science team’s leader, echoed Johnson’s thoughts. A’Hearn said, although he was saddened by the premature demise of the Deep Impact space mission, he remained proud of its involvement in furthering “… our evolving understanding of comets…“
Although Deep Impact now remains down and out, its legacy will certainly endure. Some of the latest images of ISON may have been tragically lost following the catastrophe, but the spacecraft has served admirably throughout its time, and has managed to achieve some truly stellar feats.
By: James Fenner