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Deep Impact, RIP: NASA's comet-hunting mission comes to an end

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deep impact (NASA)
deep impact (NASA)

After nine years of interstellar investigations, the mission of NASA's Deep Impact spacecraft has come to an end. In a press release issued today, the agency "reluctantly pronounced" that they had given up efforts to restore communication with the comet-hunting probe.

The announcement isn't particularly surprising, given that NASA investigators hadn't been able to communicate with Deep Impact since early August. Mission leaders now suspect that a glitch with "computer time tagging" interfered with the spacecraft's orientation — in turn making it nearly impossible for scientists to ascertain the location of its radio antennas or the orientation of its onboard solar panels. Without panels facing the sun, the spacecraft's lifespan would be sharply limited and its equipment likely frozen due to cold temperatures.

"Unexpected final curtain call"

"Despite this unexpected final curtain call, Deep Impact already achieved much more than ever was envisioned," Lindley Johnson, a program executive at NASA, said in a statement. "Deep Impact has completely overturned what we thought we knew about comets and also provided a treasure trove of additional planetary science that will be the source data of research for years to come."

Indeed, the spacecraft's mission was a remarkable one: initially launched in 2005 to rendezvous with comet Tempel 1, Deep Impact was subsequently dispatched to conduct a flyby of comet Hartley 2 in 2010. And throughout its extended mission, the spacecraft has also supplied heaps of data — including over 500,000 images — on an array of planets and stars. Among that data are incredible images, taken earlier this year, of comet ISON. A candidate for "comet of the century," ISON is expected to be visible from Earth in late November. Unfortunately, recent ISON data obtained by Deep Impact will never make it home.