NASA confirmed this week that it has lost communication with its Deep Impact spacecraft, blaming the problem on a software glitch. As Space.com reports, ground controllers say they lost communication with the probe sometime between August 11th and August 14th. Deep Impact was first launched in January 2005 to observe the Tempel 1 comet, and has since gone on to photograph and collect data on several others.
"The last communication was on August 8th. After considerable effort, the team on August 30th determined the cause of the problem," principal investigator Mike A'Hearn of the University of Maryland said in a statement this week. "The team is now trying to determine how best to try to recover communication."
A race against time
Ground controllers have been trying to put Deep Impact in hibernate mode, but their attempts have thus far proven unsuccessful. They will continue to send commands to the spacecraft in an attempt to revive it, but the situation is looking ever more dire. In an interview with Nature News Blog this week, A'Hearn said a software glitch appears to have reset the vehicle's onboard communications system, and that it is "spinning out of control."
Complicating matters even further is the fact that NASA may be racing against time. Deep Impact's batteries are charged by onboard solar panels, but A'Hearn and his team aren't sure which way those panels are facing. If they're faced toward the sun, the craft may continue to operate for a few more months. If they're turned away from the sun, Deep Impact would shut down within a few days, and it would be impossible to revive it.
"How long we have depends on the state the spacecraft is in, and we don't yet know that," A'Hearn said in an email to Space.com. "Could be that it is too late already — could be we have another month or more."