U astronomers and students help NASA study comet collision

The University group will work to determine the origins of the comet.

Seeking to learn more about the beginnings of outer space, NASA scientists intentionally crashed a spacecraft into an ancient comet in outer space Monday.

Five University astronomers and graduate students will work with NASA to determine the origins of the comet and what materials make up the object.

The spacecraft, called an “impactor,” struck the comet Tempel 1, sending bits and pieces of the object into space.

Now, astronomy professors Charles Woodward and Terry Jones and graduate students will study the collision to learn more about comets and the universe.

Because the comet is believed to predate Earth, astronomers said they believe it might be able to teach them about the origin of the universe.

The purpose of the mission Deep Impact is to take a nonactive comet, puncture a hole in it and see what comes out, Jones said.

“Comets are the oldest matter in our solar system,” Jones said. “They were around before the planets were finished forming.”

Graduate student Michael Kelley said he will research comet dust with the astronomers.

“The Earth has changed over the last (4.5) billion years, but comets have not,” Kelley said.

NASA selected Deep Impact as a mission back in November 1998. The idea was to launch a spacecraft into a comet and study the debris knocked into space, said Shadan Ardalan, a NASA mission operations engineer responsible for piloting the spacecraft.

The spacecraft was composed of an impactor that was nudged out into space from the “flyby” vehicle using three springs, Ardalan said.

The $333 million project is part of the Discovery program at NASA, which runs low-budget missions with highly valuable scientific results. Ardalan said he was in the control room when the impactor hit Tempel 1 at approximately 23,000 miles per hour.

“The place erupted when it hit,” Ardalan said. “It was amazing, electric and exciting.”

Many scientists believe comets brought the building blocks of life to Earth, he said. If scientists can understand how Earth was formed, they will better understand what to look for in searching for other life, Ardalan said.

Kelley said University researchers are specifically looking at the particles coming off the comet. They hope to determine the composition of the material using instruments from the flyby spacecraft Spitzer, Hubble space telescopes and ground telescopes.

Last week, Kelley returned from Mauna Kea, Hawaii, where he used NASA’s Infrared Telescope to examine the comet before impact. Woodward is researching the comet in Hawaii and was not available for comment. Kelley plans to return to Hawaii next week to view the aftereffects of the impact, he said.

Kelley said he guesses the study will be completed in approximately six months.

Much work on the study is yet to be completed, but Jones said he is already having fun.

“Heck of a fun thing (to) go on out there and smack a comet,” he said. “Every kid’s dream.”

Freelance editor Anna Weggel welcomes feedback at [email protected]