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Comet mission to create cosmic fireworks

Published Aug. 24, 2005

The big, grown-up boys on the NASA team can hardly wait. Next Fourth of July, they get to bust up a comet, Hollywood-style.

"Blow things up? I'm there. Yeah, I don't have any issue with that," says Richard Grammier, manager of the project for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. (And, oh yeah, he used to work with explosives in the military.)

The spacecraft is called Deep Impact, just like the 1998 movie about a comet headed straight for Earth. NASA's goal is to blast a crater into Comet Tempel 1 and analyze the ice, dust and other primordial stuff hurled out of the pit.

Mission planners say the energy produced will be like 4.5 tons of TNT going off _ producing a fireworks display for the world's observatories.

Scientists know little about comets and even less about their nuclei, or cores. They believe that penetrating the interior for observations by space and ground telescopes is the next best thing to actually landing, scooping up samples and delivering them to Earth.

Liftoff is targeted for Jan. 12, two weeks late because of software and rocket problems. NASA has until Jan. 28 to launch Deep Impact. After that, Tempel 1 will be beyond rocket reach and scientists will have to pick another comet and swallow a lengthy delay.

The entire $330-million mission should be wrapped up a month after impact.

Astronomers are counting on Deep Impact to live up to its Hollywood name on July 4, six months after its mid January launch.

This is one spacecraft NASA wants to smash and trash.

"We expect to provide great fireworks for all our observatories," Grammier says, "and that's exciting to do it on July Fourth."