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The first mission to attempt to impact the nucleus of a comet has completed its preliminary design phase and has been approved by NASA to begin full-scale development.

The Deep Impact mission, the first mission to ever attempt to impact a comet nucleus in order to answer basic questions about the nature of comets, has successfully completed its preliminary design phase and has been approved by NASA to begin full-scale development for a launch in January 2004.

The Deep Impact team of scientists, engineers and mission designers, from the University of Maryland, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corporation, have been working for more than 18 months designing the mission, the dual spacecraft and three scientific instruments.

The encounter with Comet Tempel 1 on July 4, 2005 will, according to NASA, reveal clues about the origin and composition of comets.

The Deep Impact team is currently completing the final design details and will begin building the mission’s two spacecraft: a flyby spacecraft and a 771- pound (350-kilogram) impactor spacecraft.

They will be launched together in early 2004 and travel to Comet Tempel 1’s orbit where they will separate and operate independently. The flyby spacecraft will release the impactor into the comet’s path, then watch from a safe distance as the impactor guides itself to collide with the comet, making a considerable crater in the comet’s nucleus.

‘The Deep Impact mission follows in the tradition of other Discovery missions like Mars Pathfinder and the Near-Earth Asteroid Rendezvous by doing first of a kind science on a low cost, highly focused project,’ said Brian Muirhead, the manager of the Deep Impact mission, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. ‘The project team is fully prepared to implement this technically challenging and scientifically unique mission.’

As the gases and ice inside the comet are exposed and expelled outward by the impact, the flyby spacecraft will take pictures and measure the composition of the outflowing gas.

The images and data will be transmitted to Earth as quickly as possible. Many observatories on Earth should be able to see the comet dramatically brighten just after the impact on July 4, 2005.