Just like the planet-hunting Kepler mission, NASA’s comet hunter Deep Impact exceeded expectations and extended its mission. Yet, like Kepler, and in fact like all good things, Deep Impact too must come to an end. Billions of miles from Earth, the Deep Impact might be at the end of its road.
NASA last contacted Deep Impact on August 8, and hasn’t been able to reconnect, having lost communication between August 11 and 14. According to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, scientists think “there was an anomaly generated by the spacecraft's software which left the vehicle's computers in a condition where they are continuously rebooting themselves.”
As a result, scientists don’t know the orientation of the spacecraft, nor how the antennas are arranged, making communication more difficult and control impossible at this point. And if NASA can’t line up Deep Impact’s solar array with the sun, soon the batteries will drain and Deep Impact will become far-flung space debris.
But no one can say that it didn’t have a hell of run.
Deep Impact was launched in January 2005. In July of that same year, Deep Impact snuck up behind the comet Tempel 1, and shot it with a copper probe, the size of a washing machine. In the spot-on collision, the impactor was “totally vaporized,” and it sent up a spray of comet for Deep Impact to observe, in order to better understand comets.
Images of comet C/2012 S1 (ISON) was taken by Deep Impact spacecraft over a 36-hour period on Jan. 17 and 18, 2013 via NASA/JPL-Caltech/UMD
Its mission was extended to include a fly-by of the comet Hartley 2 in 2010. Then Deep Impact performed an imaging campaign of comet C/2009 P1, from a distance, in 2012, followed by an imaging campaign of comet ISON earlier this year. All in all, the spacecraft has traveled an impressive 4.7 billion miles in space, and produced this wonderful GIF.
by Paul Stephen Carlin via Wikimedia Commons
Since everyone's thinking it, yes, there is a movie called Deep Impact, which is about a comet hitting the Earth. The people behind the movie and NASA claim to have come up with the names separately. In an odd coincidence, in the 1998 film, that comet hits Earth on August 16, which is almost the day that NASA lost contact with the comet hunting probe. And while the probe will remembered fondly by those who worked on it, it's likely that one defunct spacecraft will also eventually be overshadowed by Armageddon.