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NASA unveils comet mission on heels of cancellation

Deep Impact
Artist's conception of the Deep Impact spacecraft  

July 12, 1999
Web posted at: 4:23 p.m. EDT (2023 GMT)

In this story:

Champollion grew beyond original scope

Another coincidence?


(CNN) -- Just nine days after scrapping one comet exploration mission over cost concerns, NASA announced a similar mission with exactly the same price tag to exactly the same comet.

The new mission, Deep Impact, aims to crash a 500 kilogram (1,100 pound) copper spacecraft into Comet Tempel 1 in 2005, creating a crater as big as a football field and as deep as a seven-story building.

The earlier mission, Champollion or Deep Space 4, was to map the icy surface of the comet, land a small spacecraft there in 2005 and collect samples for on-site analysis and a later return to Earth.

NASA attached $240 million price tags to both missions and Deep Impact, like Champollion, will be managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Jay Bergstralh, NASA's program scientist for the division that includes Deep Impact, said Friday that the newer mission is unique in that it will sample the comet's core. He said the decision to can Champollion was "not in any way predicated on the selection of Deep Impact."

"We think that the pristine matter in comet nuclei is the stuff that the solar system is made of," he said. "These are fossils. If we can get through this processed crust and look at the pristine matter beneath it we think we'd have a better idea of the chemicals that were in the nebula, the cloud of gas and dust that the solar system formed from."

Champollion got the ax because of problems with funding  

Champollion grew beyond original scope

The phasing of costs over time was one reason Champollion got the ax, Bergstralh said.

"Champollion was supposed to be principally a technology demonstration program and it had grown outside that envelope," Bergstralh said.

"Deep Impact is a qualitatively different kind of mission," he said. "It doesn't do the same kinds of things Champollion was intended to do."

Both missions aimed for Comet Tempel 1 because it is a handy target in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter that rotates slowly, making for easier landings, and spews less gas and dust than other comets, he said.

The earlier mission was headed up by NASA's Brian Muirhead, leader of the Mars Pathfinder mission. The new mission will be led by Michael A'Hearn at the University of Maryland in College Park.

That move follows a NASA cost-cutting trend to put more aspects of missions in the hands of university researchers and contractors.

Artist's conception of the Rosetta lander  

Another coincidence?

The day after NASA scrapped Champollion, the European Space Agency grabbed media attention by unveiling a model of the Rosetta spacecraft, set for a 2012 rendezvous and landing on the comet Wirtanen. That feat would have made them the first agency to land on a comet given the cancellation of Champollion.

NASA's Deep Impact will precede the European landing -- although it's clear that a controlled crash is not quite the same as a landing.

Bergstralh said NASA planned months ago to announce the Deep Impact mission in July. As for whether the European Space Agency timed its unveiling to upstage NASA following the death of Champollion, Bergstralh wouldn't venture to say.

Deep Impact, which shares its name with a 1998 movie about a comet crash on Earth, is set for a January 2004 launch (Champollion was set for a 2003 launch). The plan is to put a camera and infrared spectrometer aboard Deep Impact to collect data on the icy spray from the crash, which is set to occur July 4, 2005.

The impact date hearkens to the Pathfinder landing of July 4, 1997.

NASA's other missions involving asteroids and comets include:

  Deep Space 1, set to pass by asteroid 1992KD on July 29.

  The Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous mission, set to enter orbit around asteroid Eros on Valentine's Day, 2000.

  The Stardust mission to gather samples of comet dust and return them to Earth.

On Wednesday, NASA also announced a $286 million mission to Mercury, set for a spring 2004 launch. The mission marks NASA's first return to Mercury since the Mariner 10 flybys in 1974 and 1975. Mercury is the planet closest to the sun.

The Messenger mission will be designed to look for water-ice in Mercury's polar craters, following a flight path that includes two fly-bys apiece of Mercury and Venus and an orbital tour of Mercury to start in September 2009.

High-resolution images help prepare for Mars landing
June 28, 1999
Nanorover bound for asteroid
June 28, 1999
Astronomers discover that moon has long, comet-like tail
June 7, 1999
Researchers: Earth's water probably didn't come from comets
March 30, 1999

The New Millennium Program: Space Technology 4
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
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