Deep Impact impact

A bit of humanity touches a comet, July 4, 2005

The small team still running Deep Impact, in orbit for going on nine years, on Aug. 8 lost touch with the spacecraft. Deep Impact smacked the comet Tempel 1 on Independence Day 2005 and went on to swing by a second comet, Hartley 2, and then hunt for planets. It was probably working on its master’s degree on the side.

NASA sent out a press release on Friday. The spacecraft had, as far as they could tell, gotten itself turned around, probably such that the solar panels stopped drinking in sun, so the heaters that keep the electronics and hydrazine thrusters limiber stopped working, so Deep Impact became, in effect, a frozen spacecraft — a comet of a spacecraft.

Deep Impact orbits the sun, so it won’t be crashing back to Earth as most orbiters do. DI, as they called it, whose job was to help us figure out how our solar system formed, has become a tiny, permanent body of that solar system.

Deep Impact's place in the solar system as of today and, somewhere along that red arc, over the next billion years or so. (JPL)

I saw the press release but was on deadline and had to make a Costco run (strawberries, granola, the obligatory rotisserie chicken) and so on. And then Saturday I decided to add a 1,000 yards of sprints to the six mile run (why?) and was a bit worn out, and then the evening birthday party for the daughter of a friend turning 10, and then it was late. This morning, there’s the Down Syndrome walk and drywall hanging at a friend’s up in Boulder who came within about 20 feet of having their Pinebrook Hills house erased by a mud slide during the flooding. You get the idea.

Acoustic testing - Deep Impact

Deep Impact in acoustic testing at Ball Aerospace. Ball hired Maryland Sound to bring in speakers and blast the spacecraft with enough sound to kill a man (or, I assume, a woman). The schedule was tight because the speakers had to move on to a Hall & Oates concert. (Ball Aerospace)

But I wrote a book about this mission and the company, Ball Aerospace, that built the spacecraft and instruments that enabled it (in tandem with JPL, I hasten to add). And death is a milestone. But until last night, I was having a helluva time figuring out how I felt about it. Then Jim Baer, a brilliant optical engineer who helped design the telescopes on DI (at the time, the big one was the largest ever to leave Earth orbit), dropped me an email. I hadn’t been in touch for probably two years. He wrote:

All good things must come to an end.

We did have a great ride, and it became a great story, thanks to you.


This is sort of typical of Ball Aerospace people, who have had, for going on 60 years now, a tendency to care.

I wrote Jim back:

Great to hear from you, man. Thanks for the note. I’m trying to figure out how I feel about DI and do up a short blog post and am having a hard time conjuring up a ton of emotion. I think it’s because you guys did such a phenomenal thing that so exceeded all reasonable expectations. It would be like mourning Secretariat. It was great to have had the opportunity to meet people like you and so many others at Ball Aerospace – such extraordinary people.

So I don’t mourn, and I am grateful.

Deep Impact's flyby spacecraft looks back to the Comet Tempel 1 after impact (NASA/JPL/University of Maryland)