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Deep Impact probe heading for new comet

AP | November 1 2006

The surviving portion of the Deep Impact space probe that watched as its other half smashed into a comet on July 4 is being sent on a mission to study another comet.

NASA announced Tuesday that it has accepted a proposal by the University of Maryland, which developed and manages Deep Impact, to send the vehicle on an extended mission to intercept Comet Boethin.

Researchers hope information gathered from Boethin will help further the understanding of how comets formed and evolved and if they played a role in the emergence of life on Earth.

On July 4, the U.S. Independence Day holiday, an 820-pound copper probe separated from Deep Impact and collided with comet Tempel 1 while instruments on Deep Impact and Earth-based telescopes watched to see what the wreckage would reveal about the comet.

The new mission will not involve a collision. Instead, Deep Impact will pass Boethin in December 2008 so its instruments can examine the comet.

The spacecraft remains healthy and researchers are hoping to see whether what was learned about Tempel 1 is true for other comets, said Deep Impact leader and University of Maryland astronomer Michael A'Hearn.

"This mission is a very cost effective way to provide new results that can be directly compared to the landmark Deep Impact findings," as well as those from other probes, A'Hearn said.

"As we try to interpret the larger meaning for all comets of our results from Deep Impact at Tempel 1, we have realized more and more how important the variation from comet to comet is," A'Hearn said.

Boethin is currently heading back toward the sun from its most distant point near Saturn. Deep Impact is expected to pass by the comet just outside the Earth's orbit, closer to the sun than the rendezvous with Tempel 1, but about the same distance from the Earth.

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