Comet collision is a hit for NASA

Deep Impact has, well, a deep impact

July 06, 2005|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,SUN STAFF

Maybe it's because it could help unravel the mysteries of the universe. Maybe it reminds us of Star Wars.

Maybe it's the reassurance it provides - knowing, in these fearful times, that our government, even if it can't find Osama bin Laden, can pinpoint and strike an object traveling at 23,000 mph 83 million miles away.

For whatever reason, NASA's dead-on hit on the comet Tempel 1, and the images of that collision, are attracting viewers across the country - maybe not as many as Revenge of the Sith, but some of the most respectable numbers ever for a real-life outer space event.

On the Internet, on television, and at planetariums, museums and science centers across the country, viewers watched, and are rewatching, the black-and-white images of the probe approaching the comet, the blinding explosion when it struck and the dust- and gas-filled aftermath, like a video game come to life.

Deep Impact, as it was dubbed, is the first space mission to probe beneath the surface of a comet.

On the night of impact, NASA's Web portal received a record number of visitors - with an estimated 8 million visitors and 80 million page views - more than the Cassini spacecraft's exploration of Saturn's rings and the Mars landing combined.

"It's hands down a record," said Brian Dunbar, Internet services manager for NASA. "The previous day's high for page views was 30 million for the Mars landing in January of 2004."

NASA had 118,000 Webcasts going out at the moment of impact - also a record, he said.

"A lot of science is stuff people can't relate to too directly, but everybody can certainly relate to the idea of breaking something open to see what's inside. It brings out the little boy or girl in all of us," said Lee Tune, in the office of communications at the University of Maryland, a partner in the project.

About 650 people went to watch NASA Television images of the impact at the Toll Physics Building on campus early Monday. At the Maryland Science Center in the Inner Harbor, many Fourth of July visitors to the Space Link exhibit, partly devoted to Deep Impact, came with questions after seeing news reports about the comet.

As James O'Leary, senior director of technology at the center, described it, "In a way it was like firing a bullet and hitting a target 83 million miles away. Part of the appeal is the unusual nature of it, and because there's a big bang. Everybody likes an explosion."

To others, he said, the appeal is in the mysteries that could still be solved.

"It could unlock the mystery of the solar system's origins," he said. "Everything else - the planets and the moons - change over time. But inside comets are pieces from the beginning of the solar system."

Deep Impact launched the coffee-table-sized, 820-pound copper projectile, then stood by as it hit at 2 a.m. Monday - an early start to July 4 fireworks. By studying the debris, and the crater it left - about the size of a football stadium - scientists hope to learn about the evolution and formation of the solar system.

The science center is one of dozens across the country with exhibits on Deep Impact - including a model of the spacecraft and Internet links to NASA, viewable on a large screen. It also makes use of NASA TV, which has shown photos, animations and press conferences about the mission.

"It's not always the most compelling TV," O'Leary acknowledged. "A lot of it is four or five scientists sitting at a desk answering questions, but they also show a lot of the images."

The comet collision was visible with binoculars to millions west of the Mississippi and in Hawaii.

More than 10,000 people packed Waikiki Beach Sunday night to watch on a giant movie screen by the ocean, and on the Big Island of Hawaii, hundreds watched a live feed, shown on three large screens, at the W.M. Keck Observatory in Waimea, home to telescopes atop Mauna Kea.

Live events were held at museums and science centers in Colorado, California, Oregon, Arizona and Canada. Dozens more have continuing exhibits and will be holding weekend events relating to Deep Impact, according to Anita Sohus, informal education leader for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology.

"Many of them were packed; they were turning people away," she said.

The laboratory has been working with an alliance of about 130 museums across the country to create and update exhibits on the mission, as it did with the Mars Rover.

Deep Impact's deep appeal may lie partly in its resemblance to science fiction, partly in how it demonstrates reality gaining on fantasy. But most of it, Sohus said, is due to the suspense involved - would the $330 million experiment hit its target?

"Is it going to work or not? There was just a huge and wonderful chaos of excitement," she said.

Images and more information about Deep Impact can be found online at various Web sites, including nasa.gov, jpl.nasa.gov/, and deepimpact.jpl.nasa.gov/home/index.html.

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