February 14, 2002

Cornell To Launch Comet Tour

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Cornell has begun various outreach projects to inform the community about the Comet Nucleus Tour, a space exploration mission involving a partnership between Cornell, NASA and Johns Hopkins University. The mission will study the nuclei of at least two comets.

New Discoveries

“The goal of the mission is to assess the diversity and similarities of comets,” said Michael Buckley, spokesperson for the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University.

The Comet Nucleus Tour — also called CONTOUR — will analyze the composition of comet gases and relay high quality images to observers on earth.

“Of all the objects in the solar system, the things we know least about are comets,” said Prof. Joe Veverka, Chair of the Department of Astronomy.

Veverka explained that the deposition of cometary material could have led to the emergence of life on earth and could have contributed to the water content of the oceans.

“A few years ago, it became obvious that we needed to plan some missions to determine what comets are like, and we needed to devise an efficient way to explore more than one comet in one mission,” added Veverka.

Money Matters

CONTOUR is part of NASA’s Discovery initiative to provide more cost-effective space exploration for focused and moderately priced projects.

“The CONTOUR mission will cost only about one tenth the price of a mission like Cassini,” said Veverka.

The Cassini mission is a billion dollar spacecraft en-route to explore Saturn. The smaller $154 million CONTOUR project represents the largest mission grant in Cornell’s history.

CONTOUR will be able to examine up to three of the cosmic snowballs.

The first comet, Encke, will be intercepted in November 2003. Encke has the shortest orbital period known and is perhaps the most frequently observed comet.

The tour of Schwassmann-Wachmann 3, the second target, is scheduled for June 2006. Recently, the comet fractured into several pieces, and the scientists said they hope that this will allow them to view the internal structure of the nucleus.

“The mission is on a very flexible schedule,” said Buckley.

Depending on funding, the probe could possibly rendezvous with a third comet. This final target would either be a predetermined comet or an as of yet undiscovered newcomer. According to Veverka, there is a 90 percent chance that the latter case will occur.

Accompanying CONTOUR is a host of Cornell-sponsored community outreach programs designed to inform and educate the public about the mission. One such program is the CONTOUR Comet Challenge, which encourages middle and high school students nationwide to get involved in spreading the news of the mission to their communities.

“The program gives an opportunity to middle and high school students to watch the spacecraft launch,” said Laura Lautz, Education and Public Outreach Coordinator for CONTOUR.

To participate in the Comet Challenge, a student must pair with a teacher and devise a feasible and creative community outreach plan. Two winning teams, one from grades 5-8 and another from grades 9-12, will be selected to attend launch festivities at Cape Canaveral and will be allotted a $1,000 budget to execute their plan. Additional information regarding entry dates and rules can be found at the Comet Challenge Website at www.contour2002.org.

In addition to the Comet Challenge, Cornell is sponsoring lectures and workshops about the event.

“We will be bringing a NASA astronaut to give a talk at Cornell and we will host a workshop for teachers on physics and planetary science curricula,” said Lautz. The astronaut visit is currently scheduled for March 8.

Lautz added that this outreach plays an important role in space exploration projects. Recently, a few widely publicized failures of space program missions have drawn criticism from the public.

“Often people tend to hear about the failures, but what they don’t know is that there are ten other programs occurring at the same time that turn out to be successful. These outreach programs raise awareness about the successful programs so as to make that information more accessible than it would otherwise be,” said Lautz.

One previous mission to study a comet nucleus was performed during the 1986 passing of Haley’s comet. While some pictures were sent back, the camera of the spacecraft was destroyed by the turbulent dust that surrounds the nucleus. This is not expected to be a problem with CONTOUR.

“These comets are much less active than Haley’s comet and CONTOUR will be protected by a dust shield,” said Veverka.

The dust shield is comprised of seven alternating layers of Kevlar — a material used for bulletproof vests and high performance canoes.

“The pictures produced by CONTOUR will be the best ever taken of a comet’s nucleus,” said Buckley.

The images should be 25 to 30 times greater than the quality of the Haley’s comet images.

The spacecraft will orbit around the earth each time it approaches a target, using the planet’s gravity to slingshot it through the solar system. It will approach as near as 60 miles from the nucleus at the peak of the comet’s activity. During this, the images will be beamed back up to 30 million miles to ground observers.

“The science team for this mission will operate out of Cornell, and I welcome undergraduate involvement,” said Veverka, extending an invitation for the best glimpse of a comet ever offered.

Archived article by Philip Lane