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May 21, 2005

Engineer brings comets to classroom

Casper Star-Tribune staff writer

A group of excited Mount Hope Lutheran School students lined up for their turn to see the dry ice "comets" a national space expert made for them during a presentation Friday.

Aaron Rodzinak, a systems engineer for Ball Aerospace and Technologies in Boulder, Colo., gave a special presentation on comets and the Deep Impact space mission launched by NASA for a group of students aged kindergarten through eighth-grade Friday. Rodzinak helped design and build the two-part Deep Impact spacecraft, which was launched on Jan. 12 and is currently travelling through space toward the comet Tempel 1.

"A systems engineer works to make sure the design of the spacecraft comes together the way it is supposed to," Rodzinak said, continuing that he helped make sure Deep Impact was a "balanced spacecraft."

Rodzinak explained that Deep Impact, a two-part spacecraft, will split into two parts when it reaches Tempel 1. A smaller portion of the spacecraft will collide with the comet, causing a crater, while the larger portion will record the effects of the collision on the comet, returning the data to Earth.

Dr. Michael A'Hearn, of the University of Maryland, is the principal investigator of the Deep Impact mission. In general, the purpose of the mission is to excavate a crater on a cometary nucleus to determine how a cometary crater forms, measure the crater's depth and diameter, and measure the interior composition of the comet. The mission may also determine any changes in the outgasses of the comet after impact, according to the Deep Impact Web site,

There is much that is unknown about comets, according to Rodzinak. "That is why we are going to hit it. We won't know what is inside it before we hit it," he said.

After giving his presentation, Rodzinak told the students he would help them make comets of their own. Rodzinak and Jeff Snyder, vice president of the Lutheran Church Extension Fund, colored chips of dry ice brown with cola and coffee and packed the ice into comet-like balls. Rodzinak reminded the children that comets are made of rocks, gasses, ice and debris, which causes them to be very cold and dirty. That, he said, is why he colored his comets with cola and coffee.

As he poured cola on the dry ice comets he asked the children if they knew the moon was made of cheese. They stifled giggles and told him they knew better than to believe that.

Comets, Rodzinak explained, appear to be on fire because they reflect sunlight much like the moon through the water and ice particles of which they are made. The children hastily formed a line to blow on the homemade comets, which Snyder was holding on a tray with protective gloves. Rodzinak told them to imagine the smoke coming off of the ice as it heated up under their breath was the tail of a comet, and "you are the solar wind as the comet gets close to the sun."

Tempel 1 was discovered in 1867 by astronomer Ernst Tempel. It is about five kilometers in diameter and completes a full orbit of the sun every five-and-a-half years.

Nicholas Balomo, a fifth-grader at Mount Hope, said he had learned a lot about Tempel 1 and the Deep Impact mission during Rodzinak's presentation. "I've studied comets before," Balomo said, "but never like this."

Staff writer Carrie May can be reached at 266-0616 or

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