NASA’s Deep Impact spacecraft, launched in January of this year and intended to make explosive contact with a passing comet, is now a threat to humans.
Hoping to study the difference between the interior of a comet’s nucleus and its surface, the spacecraft originally was directed toward the comet Tempel 1 to impact it violently and create a substantial crater. Scientist believe controlled cratering would allow a look deep into the interior of the comet and perhaps help science to theorize comets roles in the early evolution of the Earth. Now something has gone terribly wrong.
During scheduled communications with the probe on March 25th, technicians performed a bake-off of moisture in the barrel of the spacecraft’s High Resolution Instrument because its imaging ability was compromised. The bake-off failed to achieve perfect focus, and as if to reward effort with further insult, project managers now believe additional instructions transmitted to refine the craft’s trajectory somehow became corrupted and the craft’s direction was altered to its current one. The craft has stopped responding altogether and is swiftly headed straight back to Earth.
Deep Impact is comprised of two parts; a flyby spacecraft and a smaller impactor which was to be released into the comet’s path causing the high-speed collision. The crater that would have been produced by the impactor was expected to range from the width of a house up to the size of a football stadium and be from two to 14 stories deep. Now, instead of meeting the comet Tempel 1, both the impactor and the craft it resides in are currently expected to impact Paris, France in early July.
“Right now it’s a lot of dumb weight headed toward the Eiffel Tower region“, said Dr. Michael A’Hearn of the University of Maryland and the mission leader. “Everyone on the science and engineering teams is getting very worried and dreading the encounter. But we can do nothing to help at this time; Deep Impact remains completely unresponsive.”
If, as is expected, the craft strikes a highly populated area of Paris, the death toll could be substantial and the worst disaster in NASA’s history. It’s even possible the craft could crash in a remote area. Currently there is much uncertainty. The only agreement is that Deep Impact is on it’s way back home and not likely to impact any comets along the way.