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NASA’s Deep Impact spacecraft is spinning out of control

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Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp.

Posted on behalf of Ron Cowen.

NASA’s Deep Impact spacecraft is in deep trouble. The craft, famous for blasting a projectile into the Comet Tempel 1 in 2005, lost contact with Earth sometime between 11 August and 14 August. Recent commands to put the craft in hibernation, or safe mode, were unsuccessful, and Deep Impact is now spinning out of control, says principal investigator Michael A’Hearn of the University of Maryland in College Park. The mission was renamed Epoxi when it was extended to observe comets and stars with transiting exoplanets.

Engineers have traced the problem to a software-communications glitch that reset the craft’s computer. They are now working on commands that could bring Deep Impact back into operation. They may try to communicate with the spacecraft this weekend, but the team first has to figure out its most likely orientation and whether to broadcast signals to the vehicle’s high-gain or low-gain antenna.

Mission scientists are racing against the clock because the craft’s batteries rely on power provided by Deep Impact’s solar panels. If the panels on the wayward craft happen to be pointing in a direction where they receive partial sunlight, the batteries could last for a few months. But if the panels are pointed away from the Sun, the batteries would die in just a few days. Once the batteries are gone, Deep Impact can no longer be revived, A’Hearn says.

One casualty of the mishap is that scientists have not received any of the expected images the craft was scheduled to take in August of Comet ISON, the icy space rock that could make a spectacle in the inner Solar System this fall before diving into the Sun, A’Hearn says.

Comments

  1. Report this comment

    Emilia Costales said:

    Deep Impact has done an amazing job over eight years of a mission life that was really only supposed to be about six months. It was designed to launch a smaller spacecraft into the path of an oncoming comet (Tempel 1) and return images of the impact. And it did just that, beautifully: (http://news.sciencemag.org/2005/07/deep-impact-makes-lasting-impression). It survived flying through the debris of the comet’s tail and the challenges of nearly a decade in space. The Flyby spacecraft later went on to image a second comet: Hartley 2 (http://www.sciencemag.org/content/332/6036/1396). The mission to Comet ISON was to be a third mission for a Discovery-class spacecraft that just kept on going.

    Celebrate the life of this amazing spacecraft, the people who built it and the scientists who continued to find new uses for it. Deep Impact is craftsmanship at its very best and its scientific legacy will live on.

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      James Dwyer said:

      Well put. Hopefully its control systems can still be restored!

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      Kevin Costa said:

      Thanks for clarifying the scope of the original mission, which was missing from the article. Sounds like an amazing run!

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