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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Saturday, June 11, 2005

Observatories brace for Deep Impact

By Timothy Hurley
Advertiser Staff Writer

Observatories in Hawai'i will play key roles in studying the July 3 collision of NASA's Deep Impact probe with a comet. And as a side benefit, the people of Hawai'i will be able to witness the event as it happens.

This rocket, launched in January, carried the spacecraft that will shoot a probe into the side of Comet Tempel 1 at 23,000 mph in about three weeks.

Advertiser library photo • Jan. 12, 2005

Every major telescope on Mauna Kea and a couple on Haleakala are gearing up to observe the impact, which was intentionally scheduled by NASA to give an optimum view to the high-powered Hawai'i telescopes.

In January, NASA launched a spacecraft the size of a subcompact car to rendezvous with Comet Tempel 1 about 268 million miles from Earth. In about three weeks, the spacecraft will shoot a probe to smash into the side of the Tempel 1 at 23,000 mph in an experiment designed to find out what's beneath the fuzzy exterior of a comet.

Before the impact, the comet — located in the night sky near two bright objects, the star Spica and the planet Jupiter — will be too faint to see without a telescope or a good pair of binoculars.

The 7:52 p.m. impact, however, may be visible to the naked eye, producing a brief flash with a cloud of material that could remain illuminated by the sun for hours or even days.

But this is an experiment, and no one can predict exactly what will happen, said Gary Fujihara, science education and public outreach officer for the University of Hawai'i's Institute for Astronomy.

Technicians work on the Deep Impact spacecraft in Titusville, Fla. The 7:52 p.m. impact on July 3 may be visible to the naked eye, producing a brief flash with a cloud of material that could remain illuminated by the sun for hours or even days.

Advertiser library photo • Jan. 12, 2005

Even if there is no visible result, there will be a scientific one, Fujihara said, and observatories around the world — and especially in Hawai'i — will be focused on that part of the sky July 3. The ground-based telescopes will offer supplemental data to the information obtained by the NASA space telescopes Chandra, Hubble and Spitzer, as well as cameras on board the Deep Impact spacecraft.

Some of the telescopes on Mauna Kea already are focused on the comet, gathering baseline data.

On Haleakala, the Advanced Electro-Optical System Telescope will be observing the impact, as will educators and students from the United Kingdom, Iceland and Hawai'i using the Faulkes Telescope North.

UH astronomer Karen Meech, a member of the Deep Impact Science Team, has played two key roles for the mission.

First, she has studied the comet intensively since 1997 to learn more about its orbit, size and shape, information needed to target the spacecraft correctly. Also, she is responsible for coordinating the worldwide Earth-based observations, including those on Mauna Kea, where she will be posted during the impact.

Learn more:

For information on the Deep Impact mission:

deepimpact.jpl.nasa.gov/ and www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/

Scientists say comets are important because they are time capsules that hold clues to the formation and evolution of the solar system. They are made of ice, gas and dust, which is the primitive debris from the solar system's earliest and coldest period 4.5 billion years ago.

Deep Impact is the first mission to explore a comet's interior — where the most unchanged materials are — by creating a crater that will let scientists look deep inside.

"A few astronomers told me don't go overboard describing this," Fujihara said. "But I want to hype it up, because it's a great opportunity to get people excited about what we do."

The Institute for Astronomy is planning public events in Honolulu, Hilo and Waimea and on Maui for those who wish to learn more and participate in the event along with experienced astronomers.

Bishop Museum also has scheduled a special event for the impact, with telescopes on the lawn and an informational program in its Planetarium.

Reach Timothy Hurley at thurley@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 244-4880.