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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, July 3, 2005

Big hopes ride on tiny flash of Deep Impact

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science Writer

There's been a lot of hype about the potential astronomical fireworks when the Deep Impact probe crashes into Comet Tempel 1 tonight, but professional and amateur astronomers in Hawai'i say your best chance to see something impressive may be on a television or computer screen.


Here is a list of opportunities to view and learn about the Deep Impact collision with Comet Tempel I, set for 7:52 p.m. Hawai'i time. All events are today.


• "Comet Collision Countdown," Bishop Museum, 5:30-10 p.m. Bring your own binoculars or telescope; talks every half-hour by Institute for Astronomy experts, and video from NASA and the Hubble Space Telescope. Admission $3. For information, call Carolyn Kaichi at 847-8203.

• "Sunset On The Beach" at Waikiki Beach, featuring a talk at 7:30 p.m. by Bob Joseph of the University of Hawai'i Institute for Astronomy, followed by a live NASA feed. "The Dish," a 2001 movie with NASA- and space-related themes, will be shown at about 8 p.m. For information, call Mona Wood at 218-5546.


• A Deep Impact program, with astronomers and near-real-time images of the collision from Mauna Kea telescopes and NASA, 6:30 p.m., UH-Hilo, UCB Room 100. For information, call Gary Fujihara at (808) 932-2328.

• Regular nightly stargazing program, Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station. For information, call David Byrne at (808) 961-2180.

• Live images from the Keck II telescope control room, 7-10 p.m. at the Hualalai Lecture Theater in the W.M. Keck Observatory Headquarters in Waimea. If weather permits, telescopes will be available to view the comet from Waimea. Space is limited to 200. For information, call Laura Kraft at (808) 885-7887.


A panel of speakers and near-real-time images from Haleakala's Faulkes Telescope, 6:30 p.m., Maui Community College Ka'a'ike Building. For information, call Gary Fujihara at (808) 932-2328.


NASA video of the event, 5:30-9:30 p.m., O'ahu's 'Olelo Channel 53; 6-10 p.m., Hilo's Na Leo O Hawai'i on Channel 52; and 5:30-9:30 p.m., Kaua'i's Ho'ike Channel 56.


For detailed information on viewing Deep Impact from Hawai'i, see astroday.net/DeepImpactHawaii.html


Mauna Kea Observatories: www.mkooc.org/deepimpact.html

Jet Propulsion Laboratory: deepimpact.jpl.nasa.gov

University of Maryland: deepimpact.umd.edu

NASA says the event will occur over Hawai'i at 7:52 and 13 seconds tonight, give or take 17 seconds. That's just at the end of the twilight. At best, a dark place in the sky will either quickly or slowly brighten into something that looks like a star.

Astronomy buff Barry Peckham said that while the mission is exciting, folks on the ground aren't likely to be impressed by the visuals.

"It's 100 percent mind candy — the idea that we're going to be able to hit something that far away. It's a technological, gear-head accomplishment and I'll be impressed if they do it. But you won't be able to see it," he said.

The event, after all, will be 83 million miles away, and it won't be completely dark here at impact time. Furthermore, in urban parts of the Islands, light pollution will make it still harder to pick anything out.

But it's still worth looking, said Karen Meech, co-investigator on the Deep Impact science team and an astronomer with the University of Hawai'i Institute for Astronomy.

"I've been telling people all along it's possible that it will reach naked-eye visibility, but it won't be spectacular. Still, I think some people will be interested in actually seeing it live," Meech said.

She said the latest imagery from the comet suggests there is reason to hope for a big dust cloud that may make Tempel 1 glow like a star, as viewed from Earth.

"We're seeing outbursts from the surface, like explosions. Nobody has predicted that and we've never seen that before from a comet," she said.

It suggests that the surface may be comparatively soft, and she hopes it means the impact of the probe may throw up a huge cloud of dust and ice.

"People shouldn't expect to go out and see something" before the impact, said Bishop Museum planetarium manager Carolyn Kaichi. But it's possible, with clear skies and a pair of binoculars, that if you're watching the location just northeast of Spica, a blue-white star to the southwest of Jupiter, you'll suddenly see a light, like a star blinking on, she said.

Meech said a good backyard telescope in a good viewing location can pick out the comet, but Institute for Astronomy educator Gary Kajihara agreed that Tempel 1 is difficult even for experienced amateur astronomers to find.

"We don't want to promise anything, but you may see a new 'star' appear around the region of Spica," he said.

What, if anything, will be visible to folks on the ground depends a great deal on where the probe hits and what the comet is made of — how hard it is, and how much dust and ice gets blasted off.

"It's not really known how solid it is. That's one of the things we'll know more about after this experiment," said Bob McLaren, deputy director of the Institute for Astronomy. One of the main goals of the experiment is to study the exploded cloud of dust and ice to determine the makeup of the inside of a comet.

Reach Jan TenBruggencate at jant@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 245-3074.

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