NASA's comet-hunting spacecraft lost in space

Deep Impact's mission ends after communication is lost for more than a month

After nearly nine years in space, traveling 4.7 billion miles, NASA's deep space comet hunter has come to the end of its mission.

The Deep Impact team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory called an end to the mission after losing contact with the spacecraft for more than a month. The last communication with the spacecraft, which was launched in January 2005, was on Aug. 8.

NASA's comet hunter
This is an artist's rendering of Deep Impact, NASA's deep-space comet-hunting spacecraft. NASA last communication with the spacecraft was Aug. 8. (Image: NASA)

"Deep Impact has been a fantastic, long-lasting spacecraft that has produced far more data than we had planned," said Mike A'Hearn, NASA's Deep Impact principal investigator, in a statement. "It has revolutionized our understanding of comets and their activity."

The spacecraft gained scientific significance for sending back information about the surface and interior composition of comets, as well as data about other planets.

Deep Impact deployed a probe that was intentionally run over by a comet dubbed Tempel 1. The impact shot material from the comet's surface into space where the spacecraft could better analyze it with its telescopes and onboard scientific instruments.

"Six months after launch, this spacecraft had already completed its planned mission to study comet Tempel 1," said Tim Larson, Deep Impact's project manager, in a statement. "But the science team kept finding interesting things to do, and through the ingenuity of our mission team and navigators and support of NASA's Discovery Program, this spacecraft kept it up for more than eight years, producing amazing results all along the way."

NASA reported earlier this month that its scientists had lost contact with the spacecraft and that they suspected a software glitch may have been forcing its computers to continually reboot.

If that's the problem, the computers would be unable to fire the spacecraft's thrusters to change or maintain altitude, and the spacecraft would spin out of control.

Scientists no longer know the orientation of Deep Impact's antennas, making it much harder to communicate with the craft.

NASA also noted that if the spacecraft can't point its solar array toward the sun, it may be running low on power.

Deep Impact, which completed both its primary and extended missions, is history's most traveled deep-space comet hunter, according to the space agency.

NASA noted that the spacecraft's extended mission culminated in the successful flyby of the comet Hartley 2 on Nov. 4, 2010. It also observed six different stars to confirm the motion of planets orbiting them and took images and collected data on Earth, the moon and Mars. This collection of data helped scientists confirm the existence of water on the moon, and attempted to confirm the presence of methane in the Martian atmosphere.

"Despite this unexpected final curtain call, Deep Impact already achieved much more than ever was envisioned," said Lindley Johnson, the Discovery Program executive at NASA. "Deep Impact has completelyoverturned what we thought we knew about comets and also provided a treasure trove of additional planetary science that will be the source data of research for years to come."

This article, NASA's comet-hunting spacecraft lost in space, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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