Deeply impressed

July 06, 2005

EARTH-BOUND SCIENTISTS managed to pinprick the comet Tempel 1 this week, loosening some 4.6-billion-year-old dust and fueling humanity's drive to understand its cosmos.

The closely choreographed kamikaze mission went without a hitch; the data streaming in will be pondered for years to come. It should help astronomers winnow their models of what makes a comet - and what made the universe to begin with.

The comet smash is another example of the wisdom of NASA's Discovery Program. The program's relatively cheap missions (another was the Mars Pathfinder in 1997) gather data on "local" space for discrete reasons and tangible results. The agency is readjusting its long-term focus - though not as far as the far-out "man on Mars" talk of last year, we expect. But this is its bread-and-butter purpose - furthering pure science as well as everybody's knowledge of the worlds we live near.

People want to know, to take part. Some 625,000 worldwide signed up with NASA to be listed on a CD tucked into the "impactor." Hundreds of telescopes and thousands of eyes looked to the heavens early Monday (Eastern time), straining for a clear view into history.

NASA's smash-'em-up method may not be as elegant as the Japanese mission, in which in two months a spacecraft will swoop down on a nearby asteroid and scoop up some surface samples, or the European Space Agency mission, whose craft in 2014 will latch onto another comet using harpoons and ice screws and scuffle up many layers of samples. But bashing - aka impact cratering - is the main change method in outer space. NASA was only adopting the method of the biggest known ecosystem.

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