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News: A bit of space recycling, 2008.02.11

In the News

A bit of space recycling2008.02.11

By Elise Kleeman
February 11, 2008

LA CANADA FLINTRIDGE - When the Galileo spacecraft reached retirement, NASA crashed it into Jupiter. The spacecraft NEAR Shoemaker, ordered into hibernation after successfully landing on the asteroid Eros, never awoke from its bitterly cold, two-year nap.

But Deep Impact and Stardust aren't ready to slow down just yet. The two JPL-managed craft, both with successful, comet-visiting missions under their belts, will now get a second time to shine.

Call it space recycling.

Carrying on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's edict of getting more for less, the craft have been awoken from their post-mission slumbers.

They will once again be visiting comets - attempting to answer mysteries about the solar system travelers, about which recent comet missions have raised as many new questions as they've answered.

Deep Impact, now renamed Epoxi, will next fly by comet Hartley 2. Hartley 2 is a smaller, more typical comet than the four that previous missions have visited.

Stardust will travel to Temple 1, the comet that Deep Impact blew a crater into in 2005 with its camera-toting probe. Stardust had previously visited comet Wild 2, collecting samples from the tail in 2004 and dropping them back on Earth.

"These things are very robust," said JPL's Tom Duxbury, the spacecraft project manager. "Sometimes when I get a few aches and pains because I do a little yard work, I think it's too bad I'm not as robust as some of our spacecraft."

After their primary missions, both spacecraft were shut down by NASA, leaving them to drift in their Earth-like orbits around the sun, alone but for the occasional check-up.

Teams then submitted proposals for extended missions to NASA.

"With extended missions, you get a lot more bang for the buck," said Michael A'Hearn, a University of Maryland astronomer heading the Epoxi team. "These are very cheep compared to the prime mission. You get more than half the science at ten percent of the cost."

Stardust-NExT (for New Exploration of Temple) costs about $26 million, and Epoxi about $31 million.

It will take Stardust-NExT until 2011 to reach Temple 1 for a second look at the cratered comet, which surprised scientists with its frequent jets erupting from the surface, unusual pyramid shape and inexplicable topographic features.

Epoxi will pass Hartley 2 in 2010, sending scientists about a day's worth of close pictures of the comet before it continues on its way.

On its way, it will turn its cameras toward five stars known to be circled by giant planets, said astronomer Drake Dreming of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. By watching how the planets move and the way they block the stars' light, scientists hope to extract more information about whether they have rings and moons, and whether there are other, possibly habitable, worlds in their midst.

Even after their extended missions, Duxbury said, both spacecraft will still have enough fuel to continue on for several more years.

"It's still exciting around this place," he said. "There's still new worlds to conquer and new places to explore. It's keeping us on the edge of our seats."

Copyright © 2008, The Baltimore Sun

Elise Kleeman
Pasadena Star-News
elise.kleeman [at] sgvn [dot] com


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