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NASA sending probe to collide with comet

The Deep Impact spacecraft
The Deep Impact spacecraft  

(CNN) -- A robot spacecraft will be launched on a suicide mission to intercept and crash into a comet in deep space, NASA has announced.

In what the space agency calls a first, the Deep Impact Mission probe also will blow a huge hole in comet Tempel 1 -- a hole seven stories deep and about the size of a football field.

The spacecraft is 10.8 feet (3.3 meters) long, 5.6 feet (1.7 meters) wide, 7.5 feet (2.3 meters) high and weighs 770 pounds. It's scheduled for launch in January 2004 and is expected to catch the comet in July 2005. It then will slam into the comet at about 22,300 mph.

Researchers hope the crash will kick up material buried below the comet's surface, helping scientists learn more about the interior and exterior of comets.

Comet Tour

The probe also will record its own demise. It will carry a camera and infrared spectrometer that will separate from the spacecraft before it crashes to study the wreck of icy debris and exposed material.

The targeted comet, Tempel 1, was discovered in 1867. It orbits the sun about every five years and has passed through the inner solar system many times.

The Deep Impact mission will cost $279 million. It's one of seven NASA Discovery Program missions; three other missions are complete, one is in progress and two, in addition to Deep Impact, are under development:

-In 1997, the Mars Pathfinder lander, carrying the robot rover Sojourner, landed successfully on Mars and returned hundreds of images and measurements.

-The Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) spacecraft orbited the asteroid Eros for a year, then landed on the rock February 12, 2001.

-The Lunar Prospector orbiter mapped the moon's composition and gravity field and completed its mission in July 1999.

-The Stardust mission to gather samples of comet dust and return them to Earth was launched in February 1999 and is on its way to comet Wild-2.

-The Genesis mission to gather samples of the solar wind and return them to Earth is scheduled for launch July 30, 2001.

-The Comet Nucleus Tour (CONTOUR) mission to fly by three comets is scheduled for launch in June 2002.

• NASA unplugs NEAR
February 28, 2001

• NASA's Deep Impact

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