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NASA probe collides with comet in brilliant blast


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NASA probe collides with comet in brilliant blast




By Nichola Groom and Nigel Hunt

PASADENA, Calif. (Reuters) - A NASA spacecraft collided with a comet half the size of Manhattan on Sunday, creating a brilliant cosmic smashup that capped a risky voyage to uncover the building blocks of life on Earth.


"We hit it just exactly where we wanted to," said Don Yeomans, a scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.


The spectacular collision, 83 million miles away from Earth, unleashed a spray of below-surface material formed billions of years ago during the creation of the solar system.


"As of now, I think we have a completely different understanding of our solar system," said laboratory director Charles Elachi. "Its success exceeded our expectations."



The washing machine-sized probe, which performed three final targeting maneuvers in the mission's last two hours, crashed into comet Tempel 1 right on schedule, snapping images of its rocky terrain up until 3.7 seconds before impact.


An image of the 10:52 p.m. (1:52 a.m. EDT, 0552 GMT on Monday) crash taken by Deep Impact, the mission's mother ship, showed a brilliant burst of material coming from the bottom of the avocado-shaped comet.


"The impact was bigger than I expected, and bigger than most of us expected," Yeomans said. "We've got all the data we could possibly ask for and the science team is ecstatic."


Scientists and engineers in the $333 million mission's control room cheered, applauded, and hugged one another upon confirmation of the crash.


It could take months to analyze all the data from the crash, officials said. Images taken by the impactor in the seconds leading up to the crash showed rocky terrain, including several circular craters, on the comet's surface.


Comets are made of gas, dust and ice from the solar system's farthest regions. They often show bursts of activity, during which their surfaces crack to create tails of dust. Scientists think comets may have been responsible for first bringing water to Earth by crashing into its surface.


The size of the crater created by the copper-fortified impactor was expected to range from that of a large house to a football stadium.


Overnight on Saturday, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory team watched as Deep Impact, which recorded the crash from a safe distance, oriented itself and slowed its speed in preparation for releasing the impactor onto its collision course.


After placing itself in the proper orbit, the fly-by craft turned back and snapped a black-and-white image of the impactor hurtling away at 23,000 mph (37,100 kph) -- the speed it would take to fly from New York to Los Angeles in about six minutes.


(Additional reporting by Gina Keating)



07/04/05 02:49


An undated artist conception image released recently by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. shows an explosion (top L) on the comet Tempel 1 after being hit by an 'impactor' released from the Deep Impact spacecraft ®. NASA expects the Deep Impact spacecraft to release the impactor towards the comet on July 3, 2005, and the Deep Impact spacecraft will then take images of the impact and debris cloud when the event occurs a few hours later. NO SALES REUTERS/Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp./Handout


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