Swinging round the Earth for a date with a comet

The Deep Impact mission five years ago saw a large telescope in space point towards an even larger comet, Tempel 1, and unleash a kinetic impactor, which the comet ran into. The resulting bang released a bit of the subsurface of the comet and gave us an indication of a comet as a ‘snowy dirtball’, mostly rock and metal with volatiles boiled off the surface layers and locked into ever deeper pockets, opened with every passage by the Sun.

In the modern world, people do like to recycle things, and so it is with space missions. When it was suggested that a mission to another comet might produce interesting results, it was realised a comet spotting spacecraft was presently sat in space, working well with nothing to do. The EPOXI mission was born and soon Deep Impact turned and headed back to Earth on a journey it hadn’t been prepared for. Now it approaches the planet that originally gave birth to it and will gain speed by using a gravitational slingshot to get it to the next comet, Hartley 2, on the 4th of November.

Meanwhile, another probe that came to Earth, Hayabusa, is to reveal its secrets. The canister dropped into the Australian sands before the mothership burnt up in spectacular fashion is to be opened carefully over the next week or so.

Any bets that a sore-headed, sun-shaded alien with a tropical drink will gibber angrilly once they get the top off?

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