2014 General Assembly in Victoria

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Scott Mair

My American friends like to celebrate their independence day with a bang. I think they may be overdoing it this year. On July 4th at 1:52 am EDT (10:52 pm, July 3 for us in Victoria) NASA's Deep Impact spacecraft will fire a 1 metre wide, 113 kilogram copper alloy bullet at Comet Temple 1.

What did Temple 1 ever do to deserve this? Just good luck. Temple 1 is a short period comet, circling the sun every 5.5 years pretty much on the same plane as the Earths's orbit around the sun so it's pretty easy to get to, as far as comets go.

It seems like a lot of trouble to go through: send a 410 million dollar spacecraft 133 million kilometers in less than six months to make a hole 2 to 14 stories deep into a dirty snowball traveling at 37,000 km/hr (at those speeds you could travel from Victoria to Toronto in 6 minutes). With our luck the impact will change the comets trajectory and it will crash into the earth. Not to worry, the impact will be about the same as a mosquito crashing into a 747.

Why bother? What we know of comets today comes from their surfaces, coal black, carbon rich crusts created from multiple trips around the sun. But, in their interiors is the stuff of the burgeoning solar system. Comets retain, largely unchanged, the original composition of the early solar system. Blasting our way beneath the crust will help us understand the formation of our solar system.

We also know that all of the planets have undergone bombardment from asteroids and comets (remember Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9's encounter with Jupiter, July, 1994). Being rich in water and organic molecules comets may have helped to seed the building blocks of life on the young Earth. Deep Impact will help shed light on these mysteries.

I know I'll be watching. Even though it won't be very dark in Victoria at the time of impact, I'll have my telescope pointed above and a little east of Spica, the brightest star in Virgo (which is just east of Jupiter, the brightest 'star' in the sky). Ordinarily, Temple 1 is only a magnitude 10 object (that's dim, you'll need a telescope to see it) but, if the impact goes as planned it may get bright enough to see with the naked eye (magnitude 6). Regardless, I'll be checking out the Deep Impact web site (www.nasa.gov/deepimpact or deepimpact.jpl.nasa.gov) in the following days to see the pictures.  the Deep Impact orbiter will have a front row seat, only 700 km away.

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Last updated: December 12, 2013

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