Friday, July 06, 2007

NASA: Something old, something new


Now all we need is something borrowed and something blue, and NASA can get hitched!

In a bid to save money, NASA is recycling a pair of used space probes, reconfiguring them for new missions.

The Deep Impact probe fired what was essentially a large bullet into a comet named Tempel 1 in 2005 to find out what the comet's interior was made of. After that the probe was shut down to conserve energy. Now NASA plans to wake it up and use it to examine planets circling other stars, as well as visit another comet at the end of 2008.

The Stardust probe flew through the tail of another comet in 2004, collecting particle samples of the tail. It then circled back to Earth and dropped off the samples in early 2006. But the probe itself remained in space. It's new mission will be to visit Tempel 1 and take additional photographs of the impact crater left by Deep Impact's bullet.

Meanwhile, a brand-new probe is scheduled to launch this weekend. The Dawn spacecraft will fly to the asteroid belt and visit two of the largest bodies there, Vesta and Ceres. Among other cool things, the probe will be powered by an ion engine, serving as something of a test-bed for a technology that could end up being heavily used in any effort to colonize or exploit the solar system.

Let's hope NASA has worked out the kinks that led to comically disastrous mistakes in the past, so we can get on with gathering unprecedented glimpses of our solar neighborhood.

Update: The Dawn launch has now been postponed until September due to various technical problems, and a desire not to interfere with the upcoming launches of the shuttle and another rocket.

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