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Deep Impact: Science or stunt - what are your views?

Updated Thursday, 30th June 2005

Deep Impact is a major space mission, which promises to expand our knowledge of the nature of comets massively. But not everyone views the mission without some misgivings. Here's how two of our experts respond to the challenge: "Deep Impact: serious science, cosmic vandalism or independence day publicity stunt?"

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Tempel 1 - the object of our attentions

Professor Barrie W Jones
Professor of Astronomy, The Open University

This is serious science. Comets are remnants of the materials out of which the Solar System formed. And even though much of Tempel 1's volatile ices will have evaporated during its many orbits in the inner Solar System much remains to be explored. Though we have images of the surfaces of three other comets (Halley, Borrelly, Wild 2) this will be the first time we will sample directly a comet's interior. Up to now we have had to rely on the composition of the dust and ion tails blown off comets by solar radiation - possibly biassed samples.

No vandalism here! Tempel 1, at about 6 km across, will survive, and live out, by cosmic standards, its brief life as one of the 150 or so short-period comets. Short-period comets come and go with lifetimes of only about 10,000 years.

I wish the USA had not chosen the Fourth of July for impact. I fear this will be interpreted by many either as a stunt, or as demonstrating too much nationalism

Doctor Lucie Green
Solar Astronomer & Stardate presenter

The name of the mission is shared with a Hollywood film and the date of impact means that, if successful, comet Tempel 1 will become America's most spectular firework ever on Independence day. But glitz aside this event promises to reveal tantalising secrets currently held below the cometary crust. It is serious science and will show us for the first time whether the interior structure of a comet is hard and dense, or if it is more like a collection of snowflakes. We have a lot to learn about comets, and the fact that all the major ground and space-based observatories are watching this event shows what an amazing opportunity for science this is.

We want to hear what you think, too - share your opinions on these statements in the science or stunt thread on our forum. Remember, if you've got any general comments or questions about the mission or TV broadcasts, we want to hear those, too, in the comments area.

The Open University's expert Dr David Rothery who chairs the OU short course Planets: an introduction (S196) and the higher level course Planetary Science and the Search for Life (S283) will do his best to answer questions.

 

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