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July 3, 2001

3, 2, 1... Deep Impact
Daily Record Business Writer

They have one shot to get it right, and for a project with a $279 million price tag, it's not hard to understand why.

On July 4, 2005, the team of Deep Impact plans to take the first look inside a comet, crashing a spacecraft into Comet Tempel 1 and leaving a crater the size of a football field.

The Deep Impact mission is a University of Maryland-based and NASA and Ball Aerospace & Technologies-funded project that researchers hope will help scientists understand more about comets - and possibly the beginning of life on Earth.

The spacecraft is set to be launched as a unit in early 2004 and will travel to Comet Tempel 1's orbit, which was found to orbit the sun every 5.5 years since its discovery in 1867.

Once in the comet's orbit, the spacecraft will separate into two units, each operating independently from the other, with the 770-pound impacting spacecraft engaging in the collision after its separation from the flyby spacecraft.

After impact, the flyby spacecraft will take pictures of the gases and ice expelled and exposed from the comet.

The team believes the ice and dust that make up the comet hold valuable clues to the solar system's earliest and coldest formation period 4.5 billion years ago.

"We are using the solar system as a laboratory to study," said Lucy McFadden, University of Maryland astronomer and director of education and public outreach for the project. "It is telling us information about the cold distant regions of the solar system."

Since 1997, the Deep Impact team has been working on the concept and proposal for the project. Despite being turned down once before, the mission was funded as one of two Discovery Program Missions chosen during a 1999 round of proposals.

Currently at the University of Maryland, workers are in the process of developing and designing specifics, said McFadden. On May 23, the preliminary design was approved.

"NASA doesn't let us do things twice," said McFadden. "Part of the excitement is we have to make sure we are going to hit this."

Excitement is brewing in Baltimore as well, where the Maryland Science Center is gearing up for the comet's brief meeting with the spacecraft. Science Center workers are monitoring the mission and encouraging the public to take a look at the observatory that is open to the public.

"We are definitely going to emphasize the view," said Flavio Mendez, director of SpaceLink Maryland Science Center, an exhibit where visitors can learn about new space research through different levels of interactivity. Mendez says the Science Center will do a "play by play" of the comet's orbit.

Deep Impact takes center stage at the Science Center in May 2002 when the mission will be featured as the monthly Star Gazing Thursday program.

The Science Center, meanwhile, is looking at the possibility of enhancing one of its exhibits to include information about both comets and asteroids, said Mendez.

McFadden sees the Science Center's support as another avenue to educate the public.

"We hope to engage the public around the time of the encounter," she said "There are amateur astronomers around the country. We hope to mobilize them."

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