Press Release

University of Maryland-Led Deep Impact Mission Wins Space Exploration Award

By SpaceRef Editor
November 8, 2005
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University of Maryland-Led Deep Impact Mission Wins Space Exploration Award

Deep Impact, the University of Maryland-led NASA mission that made history and worldwide headlines when it smashed into a comet this past July 4th, has won the Space Frontier Foundation’s Vision to Reality award.

“Deep Impact was selected because it represents the best accomplishment of the year in turning the vision of true space exploration and the gathering of scientific knowledge, into reality,” said Jeff Krukin, executive director of the Space Frontier Foundation.

“Furthermore, [the University of Maryland’s mission leadership] demonstrates that American institutions other than NASA are adept at conducting challenging space missions,” Krukin said.

 The award was presented to mission leader and principal investigator Michael A’Hearn of the University of Maryland at the foundation’s annual conference in Los Angeles, Calif., October 21-23, 2005.

“This award is a really great tribute to the large team that put in a tremendous amount of effort to make the mission happen. The Space Frontier Foundation is an advocate for activities in space that break the paradigm and we are proud to be put in that class.” said A’Hearn, a Distinguished University Professor in the department of astronomy at Maryland.

A Mission of Discovery Watched by the World

Deep Impact’s excavation of a comet drew worldwide attention and was widely acclaimed as a tremendous scientific and engineering success. The mission was, by almost any measure, NASA’s most widely followed unmanned mission ever, and one of its most popular of all time. NASA reported that there were more than a billion hits on mission Web sites around the time of impact.

Deep Impact is one of 10 missions selected to date as part of NASA’s Discovery Program. According to NASA, “the Discovery Program gives scientists the opportunity to dig deep into their imaginations and find innovative ways to unlock the mysteries of the solar system. It represents a breakthrough in the way NASA explores space, with lower-cost, highly focused planetary science investigations designed to enhance our understanding of the solar system.”

Eight of the 10 Discovery missions have launched. Of these, the Deep Impact, NEAR, Pathfinder and Prospector missions have been successfully completed. Stardust and Messenger have not yet completed their missions. One, CONTOUR was lost shortly after launch.

Another, Genesis crashed on its return to Earth when its parachutes failed to open. However, Genesis is still considered a tremendous achievement by scientists, because most of the mission’s samples of solar wind particles were recovered and are being analyzed.

Deep Impact differed from most Discovery missions in that it was led by a university not directly affiliated with a NASA Center. According to the Space Frontier Foundation and other observers, Deep Impact also stands out because of principal investigator A’Hearn’s hands-on, detailed leadership of almost all aspects of the mission, and because of the breadth of involvement in the mission by other University of Maryland scientists.

More than a dozen scientists, staff and students in the university’s department of astronomy were involved in the mission, together with a science team assembled from 9 other institutions around the world.

In addition to A’Hearn, University of Maryland participants included research scientist Lucy McFadden, a science team member and director of education and public outreach for the mission; Dennis Wellnitz, a faculty research scientist who managed instrument development and performance; Stephanie McLauglin, a faculty research assistant who coordinated the mission’s Small Telescope Science Program; Carey (Casey) Lisse, a senior research scientist in the astronomy department during much of the mission’s seven years and now with the John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, who led the effort to extract views of the nucleus from spacecraft images; Elizabeth Warner, director of the University of Maryland’s campus observatory and liaison to the amateur astronomy community for the mission; Olivier Groussin, a research associate who was an expert on thermal models of the nucleus of Comet Tempel 1; research associate Tony Farnham; and post doctoral researcher Lori Feaga.

“Maryland graduate students involved in Deep Impact worked on thesis topics that helped us to interpret the mission results,” said McFadden. “And undergraduates from the university’s College Park Scholars program also worked with the Deep Impact team over the past six years contributing to the mission’s Web pages and as research assistants.”

Deep Impact was carried out as a partnership among the University of Maryland, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. The university, through principal investigator A’Hearn, was responsible for the entire mission and directly managed the scientific effort, education and outreach, and the development of the instruments on the spacecraft. The Deep Impact science team has submitted a proposal for an extended mission for the mission’s flyby spacecraft to visit another comet. This proposal will be considered under the next Announcement of Opportunity for the Discovery Program.

According to its Web site, the Space Frontier Foundation is an organization “dedicated to the human settlement of space in our lifetime.” Its stated purpose is to “unleash the power of free enterprise and lead a united humanity permanently into the Solar System” by “transforming space from a government-owned program into a dynamic and inclusive frontier open to all people.”

CONTACT: Lee Tune, University of Maryland, Office of University Communications, 301-405-4679,

SpaceRef staff editor.