Will NASA Deny Deep Impact Another Comet Encounter?

By Keith Cowing
July 5, 2005
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Will NASA Deny Deep Impact Another Comet Encounter?

Over the past year or so, NASA has considered plans for an extended mission for Deep Impact to another comet after its baseline mission to Comet Tempel 1. One such mission would involve a flyby of Comet Boethin 3 1/2 years from now.

Under such a scenario mission managers would evaluate the spacecraft once it had completed its observations of Comet Tempel 1. This comet encounter was rather intense and the environment surrounding the spacecraft could have degraded some of its instruments to the point where they were either unreliable or not capable of producing additional significant data.

As such, mission planners would determine the spacecraft’s ability to continue to operate in a fashion worthy of supporting another encounter. In order to be redirected to Comet Boethin a course correction burn would be required by the end of this month.

However, according to knowledgeable sources closely associated with the Deep Impact mission, as of today money has not (yet) been made available by NASA for such an extended mission – including the small amount of money needed for the earliest steps: to retarget the spacecraft.

Editor’s update 6 July 9:00 AM EDT: Late yesterday (Tuesday 5 July – after this article was published online) the Deep Impact team was told for the first time that there would now be enough money to perform the TCM (trajectory correction maneuver) required to send the spacecraft back toward Earth for a gravity assist to whatever new target is eventually chosen. In addition, yesterday evening, the team was informed that NASA had identified funding for a very minimal flight operations team – just enough to keep the spacecraft going until a new target is chosen. Meanwhile, as noted below, no one from NASA, JPL, or University of Maryland public affairs has responded to – or acknowledged my initial request several days ago.

As such, unless the funds are found, plans characterized by a source as being “hastily thought out” call for the spacecraft to be placed into a ‘safe state’ for decommissioning. In essence, a $333 million spacecraft mission – one with the potential for making additional discoveries – could be shut off because of a lack of perhaps a few tens of thousands of dollars needed to plan the Delta-V maneuver to the next target.

There is still time for NASA to come up with the funds – but not very much.

To be certain, it would take much more in terms of funding to monitor the Deep Impact spacecraft en route to Comet Boethin and then to manage another future encounter. Given that Deep Impact did exactly what it was supposed to do, there are certainly other NASA missions waiting in line, which are struggling to get to the point where they would fly – and accomplish their own mission objectives.

Earlier this year, NASA had been moving down a path of shutting off the two accomplished and amazingly resilient Voyager spacecraft which are now in interstellar space – all for want of a small amount of money. Administrator Mike Griffin has expressed his dissatisfaction with such an action. Perhaps he will intercede on behalf of this mission as well – one which, like the Voyagers, could have much more to give.

Editor’s note: I sent a series of questions on this topic to the NASA, JPL, and University of Maryland PAO representatives listed on all Deep Impact news releases. After 24 hours, no one has answered any of my questions or replied to simply acknowledge receipt of my initial request for information.

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.