Deep Impact Coverage: First Images and Science Results from Deep Impact

Members of the Deep Impact team spoke to reporters early this morning about the success of their mission to Comet Tempel 1. About ten percent of the data has been downloaded from Flyby with the remaining portion to be downloaded over the next 24 hours. The team continues to clean up the raw data to produce useful products for the media, the public, and the scientific community.

During the press conference, team members presented an animation created from images taken by Impactor prior to hitting the comet. The animation begins with the comet as a distant bright orb that rapidly grows in size until the final image of what appears to be surface boulders or rocks taken just three seconds prior to impact. The audience reaction? Loud exclamations, gasps, and applause.

The resulting ejecta cone from the impact exploded out into space. Dr. Michael A’Hearn, Principal Investigator for the Deep Impact mission and Professor of Astronomy at the University of Maryland said that the ejecta cone grew to be larger in dimension than the comet nucleus itself and was still evolving at least 45 minutes after impact. Ground and space-based telescopes, including Hubble, recorded a rapid increase in brightness of the comet. Scientists will take a close look at images and spectra of the ejecta material to determine the composition of Tempel 1.

Thumbnail versions of images from Flyby’s Medium Resolution Instrument (MRI) were rapidly provided on the mission site, which slowed to a crawl during and after impact. Team members stated that the number of visitors to the website has outpaced the combined peak traffic to the Cassini-Huygens and Mars Exploration Rovers websites.

Still ahead for the Deep Impact mission team is another press conference at 11 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time today, completing the download of data from Flyby, and processing images from the High Resolution Instrument (HRI). These higher resolution images will take longer to process because of a flaw in the camera. The team was able to develop software to correct for this camera blurring, but the resulting deconvolution process will take more time. The images released so far have undergone little enhancement and team members during the press conference mentioned that the best was still yet to come.

Flyby survived the encounter with Comet Tempel 1 with no apparent damage. It will continue to monitor the comet, although it is now facing the opposite side from the impact location and rapidly receding. Team members were reluctant to discuss future scenarios for Flyby, but if the spacecraft remains in good condition, it could potentially be targeted at another comet for exploration.

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Richard Leis

Richard Leis is a writer and poet living in Tucson, Arizona. His poetry has been published in Impossible Archetype. His essays about fairy tales and technology have been published on Tiny Donkey and Fairy Tale Review’s “Fairy-Tale Files“.