MU observatory holds comet viewing

After collision with a NASA spacecraft, the comet is easier to see.
Tuesday, July 5, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:38 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Val Germann had the champagne ready to toast the successful collision between a probe fired from the NASA Deep Impact spacecraft and comet Tempel 1 early Monday.

“This is absolutely unique,” said Germann, president of the Central Missouri Astronomical Association, getting excited about the impact. “This is what science should be.”

The cosmic collision between the capsule and the comet, roughly half the size of Manhattan Island, occurred at 12:52 a.m. When the two met, the energy released was as if someone detonated 4.5 tons of TNT.

The comet was not visible to Columbians at the time of impact. However, Germann said Laws Observatory will be open to the public today and Wednesday for a chance to catch a glimpse of the comet.

“We could not have scripted this any better than it went,” said Randi Wessen, spokesman for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. The laboratory was responsible for navigating the spacecraft.

Scientists have not been able to determine the size of the new crater, but Wessen said all of the objectives of the $333 million mission were met. Scientists hope the crater produced by the bullet-like probe will provide information about the nature and composition of comets, which are believed to date to the beginning of the solar system.

“This is the oldest and most pristine material we could sample,” said Geoff Chester, director of public affairs for the U.S. Naval Observatory.

After impact, the comet became significantly brighter, possibly making it visible through binoculars or even to the naked eye.

The comet looks like a fuzzy ball just to the left of the planet Jupiter, Chester said.

He recommended people visit the NASA Web site for the best images of the impact: those taken from Deep Impact as it flew close to the comet.

Germann said there will also be live footage broadcast from the NASA Web site during the observatory viewing times.

Deep Impact was launched on Jan. 12 so the impact would coincide with the best viewing times for major telescopes on Earth.

“The comet was closest to Earth about three months ago, but they set it up for telescopes in Hawaii and in the Pacific,” Germann said.

Three of NASA’s telescopes in orbit will also document the event: the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Spitzer Space Telescope.

Tempel 1 is a short-period comet, a comet that has an elliptical orbit around the sun. It passes between Mars and Jupiter every 5.5 years.

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