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NASA Scientists Say Deep Impact on Course to Hit Comet


NASA scientists say everything remains on course for what promises to be Monday's spectacular rendez-vous between the Deep Impact space probe and the comet, Tempel 1. The announcement follows the separation of the "impactor" from the fly-by space craft, which will record the massive collision.

The 372 kilogram copper "impactor" is hurtling toward comet Tempel One, 133 million kilometers from Earth, after separating successfully from the Deep Impact spacecraft early Sunday.

Charles Elachi is director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California, where scientists are monitoring the mission.

"Last night we successfully pulled the trigger. And the impactor is heading at 23-thousand miles per hour (36,800 kilometers) towards the comet. At that speed, you can go from Washington to LA in less than six minutes," Mr. Elachi says.

If all goes as planned, the probe will smash into the comet early Monday. The mothership will record images of the resulting crater and spray of debris, and beam the pictures back to mission scientists.

Tempel 1 is a pickle-shaped comet, some four- by twelve-kilometers in size, that orbits the sun between Mars and Jupiter every six or so years.

Deep Impact principal investigator Mike A'Hearn says the material released by the impact may offer clues as to the formation of the solar system four-and-a-half billion years ago.

"That in turn will then allow us understand what came to Earth in the early solar system from comets, and sort out in fact whether we are all comets or maybe we are partly asteroids," Mr. A'Hearn says.

Professional astronomers in two dozen countries are expected to monitor the Deep Impact. As for amateur stargazers, NASA scientists say they might see a brightening of the comet in the southwestern sky around Jupiter.

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