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June 5, 2005

Stargazers Drafted for Mission
By LAUREN DONOVAN, Bismarck Tribune

CROSS RANCH STATE PARK -- In a place set apart to enjoy the river, the deep green grass and the rustle of cottonwood trees, stargazers spent the weekend looking up and away from it all.

The North Dakota Star Party, hosted by amateur astronomy clubs in the state, ends today at Cross Ranch State Park near Hensler.

The star gazers from North Dakota and elsewhere, kids and genuine star geeks, poked telescopes toward the daytime and nighttime sky in an open field in the park.

During the light hours, they observed sunspots and solar flares through special filters.

By night, they drifted around the sky from Jupiter with four distinct moons, to Saturn with oblong rings of light, to a gossamer nebula in the Hercules constellation, to wherever their fancy led them.

The party was not all play.

They were asked to go to work this summer.

Amateur astronomers from around the world are needed to help track a NASA space project called Deep Impact.

The project has already impacted American pocketbooks to the tune of $300 million.

It was launched in January, and on the Fourth of July, when America is waving the flag and watching the parade, 800 pounds of metal will slam into the comet Tempel 1.

The comet is fairly dark and is located in the southern nighttime sky up and to the left of Jupiter.

It's about 10 miles long and three miles high and across.

If it doesn't miss altogether, the collision is expected to make a crater seven stories deep, about the dimension of a football stadium, on the comet's surface.

A cloud of whatever the comet's made of should be released. That will serve two purposes: first, scientists will be able to finally get a good idea of what comets are made of; and second, the debris might create a visible "jet" trail and make the comet visible to the human eye.

Scientist Elizabeth Warner said knowing what comets are made of serves more than an arcane scientific purpose.

It'd be easier to deal with a comet threatening to collide with Earth if scientists know whether a giant ice ball, or something different, is bearing down on the planet.

Observatory telescopes around the globe will be pointed at Tempel 1 for a few days after impact, but gathering a visual record of what happens after that will depend on the work of amateurs, Warner said.

The spacecraft aimed at Tempel 1 holds the biggest telescope in the heavens outside the Hubble in the Earth-moon orbit.

It'll take some good observations as it approaches the comet. Once it passes into the cloud of gas, dust and debris from the collision, the telescope mirrors will likely be useless.

After that, for all its initial usefulness, Deep Impact "could become junk orbiting the sun. It's done its job," Warner said.

For information about the project, go to the Web site

(Reach reporter Lauren Donovan at 888-303-5511 or

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