NASA halts communication attempts with Deep Impact

The spacecraft which observed one of the most challenging missions of the last decade has been declared lost.  Deep Impact fell silent about a month ago and has not responded to any attempts to communicate since.  Flight engineers suspect that a software glitch caused the ship to point its antennas away from us.  Without the ability to communicate, the bug could not be corrected and the spacecraft is doomed to continue its journey alone.

Collision with comet 9P/Tempel, as seen by the Deep Impact spacecraft.  (Image credit: NASA)

Collision with comet 9P/Tempel, as seen by the Deep Impact spacecraft.  (Image credit: NASA)

Deep Impact, launched in early 2005, was an ambitious mission  After five and a half months of travel, it released an impactor which slammed into the comet 9P/Tempel.  Hitting at a speed of more than 37,000 kilometers per hour, the impactor blasted a 100 meter crater into the comet's nucleus.  The impact ejected tons of material into space, revealing the nature of a comet's interior.  Deep Impact, trailing closely behind the impactor, returned thousands of pictures and measurements to Earth over the following days.  The mission revolutionized our understanding of the composition and structure of comets.

Although the impactor was vaporized during the collision, the rest of the $330 million spacecraft remained intact.  Always striving to eek every ounce of science out of spacecraft in flight, NASA repurposed Deep Impact for the EPOXI mission.  From 2008 to 2012, the mission flew by several additional comets, returning images and observations to Earth.  When communications were lost last month, Deep Impact was beginning a maneuver which would have placed it in good position to observe comet ISON later this year.  This exciting comet will pass very close to Mars around the time the MAVEN spacecraft is heading to the red planet.