America declared a war of the worlds today when its Deep Impact spacecraft launched a spectacular attack on a distant comet. A 820lb smart bomb the size of a fridge scored a direct hit on the cosmic wanderer, called Tempel 1, blasting a huge crater in its surface. The massive explosion with the force of 4.5 tons of TNT, 83million miles away from Earth, caused a brilliant flare as icy debris was sent shooting into space (see NASA picture, below).
A mini webcam on the missile sent back detailed images of the head of the comet, half the size of the Isle of Wight, as it homed in at 23,000mph – 11 times the speed of a rifle bullet – in a scene like the movie Armageddon. It snapped pictures of moon-like craters and ridges, some as small as 8 inches across. Then more pictures were taken of the Independence Day fireworks by cameras aboard the unmanned spacecraft that fired the missile.
It blew the hole in the comet to release and study material that had been in deep-freeze since the formation of the solar system 4.5 billion of years ago.
Scientists at mission control at Pasadena, California, clapped and cheered as the first stunning pictures of the interplanatary raid appeared on their screens. One cried: “Oh my god, look at that! Oh yeah!”
Nasa comet expert Donald Yeomans was ecstatic. He said: “We’ve had a far bigger explosion than we anticipated. I can’t imagine how this could go any better.”
And Andy Dantzler, director of NASA’s Solar System Division, said: “This mission is truly a smashing success. Tomorrow and in the days ahead we will know a lot more about the origins of our solar system.”
The Deep Impact spacecraft was launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida on January 12 on its 268million mile journey through space.
The mothership, the size of a family car 300 miles from the blast, had just 13 minutes to collect and transmit data to Earth before it had to raise shields to protect itself from dust raining down in the comet’s tail.
Back on Earth, UK astronomers were among scientists who watched from observatories including the Hubble space telescope as the dramatic events occurred.
In one of the first dramatic results tonight, a European X-ray satellite called XMM-Newton orbiting the Earth detected water – an essential ingredient for life – in material ejected from the comet.
Children from Kings School, Canterbury, travelled to London to operate a telescope on Hawaii over the internet and analyse the information received.
Professor Keith Mason, Director of the Mullard Space Science Laboratory at University College London, was observing the explosion remotely with a telescope aboard Nasa’s Swift space telescope.
Another British scientist watching events closely was Professor Iwan Williams of Queen Mary College, University of London. He is a lead scientist on the European Space Agency’s own mission, Rosetta, which will land on another comet called Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 2014.
Professor Williams said yesterday: said: “What we’ve seen so far is absolutely fantastic. “It’s much bigger than any of us expected the plume to be. Much more material has been thrown out than we expected.”
Open University professor Monica Grady, president of the UK’s Society for Popular Astronomy, said: “We’ve seen pictures of the outside of comets before but this is the first time that we’re going to actually look inside a comet.
“We’re going to see the pristine material that formed the solar system 4.6 billion years ago and that’s never been seen before.
“If we want to understand how the solar system was put together, we have to understand these building blocks, and the building blocks of life are part of comets.”
She said one of the most exciting episodes in the mission was the sight of Tempel 1 looming closer and closer as the impactor homed in on its target.
“We saw some really amazing images,” she said. “You could see there were craters on the surface and that’s absolutely fantastic. We had no real idea of what the surface would look like.”