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 Deep Impact's mission
Space Mission to bust open a hole in a comet to reveal its inner secrets.

PASADENA, California (AP)

NASA's Deep Impact comet-busting spacecraft emerged from "safe mode" was operating normally, The spacecraft went into protective mode after launch Wednesday from Cape Canaveral, Florida, when it detected higher-than-expected temperatures in its propulsion system.

Safe mode shuts down all but essential systems while the spacecraft awaits new commands from controllers.

While in safe mode, Deep Impact did perform essential tasks including deploying and locking its solar panels, NASA said. The craft was receiving power and was properly oriented in space.

"We're back on (the timeline) and look forward to our encounter with comet Tempel 1 this summer," said Rick Grammier, the Deep Impact project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Scientists are counting on Deep Impact to carve out a crater in Comet Tempel 1 that could almost swallow the Roman Coliseum. It will be humans' first look into the heart of a comet, a celestial snowball still containing the original building blocks of the sun and the planets.

Because of the relative speed of the two objects at the moment of impact -- 23,000 mph -- no explosives are needed for the job. The force of the smashup will be equivalent to 4 1/2 tons of TNT, creating a flash that just might be visible in the dark sky by the naked eye in one spectacular Fourth of July fireworks display.

Nothing like this has ever been attempted before.

Little is known about Comet Tempel 1, other than that it is an icy, rocky body about nine miles long and three miles wide. Scientists do not even know whether the crust will be as hard as concrete or as flimsy as corn flakes.

"One of the scary things is that we won't actually know the shape and what it looks like until after we do the encounter," said Jay Melosh, a planetary geologist at the University of Arizona.

The comet will be more than 80 million miles from Earth when the collision takes place -- on the sunlit side of the comet, NASA hopes, in order to ensure good viewing by spacecraft cameras and observatories. The resulting crater is expected to be two to 14 stories deep, and perhaps 300 feet in diameter.

Deep Impact is carrying the most powerful telescope ever sent into deep space. It will remain with the mother ship when the copper-fortified impactor springs free the day before the comet strike, and will observe the event from a safe 300 miles away.

NASA space telescopes like the Hubble will also watch the collision, along with ground observatories and amateur astronomers. The impactor will have a camera, too, that will snap pictures virtually all the way in.

The entire mission costs $330 million, all the way through the grand finale.
Posted by Z Tuesday, March 31, 2009 (20:53:13)
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