Deep Impact will fly to new comet

A space probe that attacked a comet with a missile last year is to hunt down a second target, Nasa has revealed.

Deep Impact's strike on Tempel 1Deep Impact blasted a crater the size of Wembley Stadium out of Comet Tempel 1 with an 820 lb smart bomb.

The explosion, with the force of 4.5 tons of TNT, was so spectacular that it blinded cameras that tried to peer into the crater for evidence of how the solar system formed. However, much valuable data was recorded from the impact, 83 million miles away in space.

Now Nasa are backing a proposal to send Deep Impact to visit another celestial wanderer, Comet Boethin. But this time the $380 million, unmanned probe will come in peace rather than launch a war of the worlds – because it doesn’t have another missile anyway.

Instead it will fly past the comet in December 2008 to examine its surface and find out what it is made of. Nasa call the proposal a “mission of opportunity” because it was not planned when Deep Impact was launched from Florida in January 2005.

Scientists are also suggesting that the probe’s high-resolution camera is used to search for Earth-sized planets orbiting other stars.

Deep Impact team leader Michael A’Hearn, of the University of Maryland, said: “Deep Impact’s flyby spacecraft and payload are still healthy. We propose to direct the spacecraft for a flyby of Comet Boethin to investigate whether the results found at Comet Tempel 1 are unique or are also found on other comets.”

He said Deep Impact would send back half as much information as from Tempel 1 but at just a tenth the cost.

Jessica Sunshine, a member of the Deep Impact science team, said: “Data from comets can help us to better understand the origin of the solar system, as well as what role, if any, comets may have played in the emergence of life on Earth. However, we first must know which cometary characteristics are due to evolution and which are primordial.”

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By Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland has been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. He writes regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy, plus he has authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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