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Deep Impact en route to Tempel 1

Comet in for a surprise

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Deep Impact blasts off aboard a Boeing Delta II rocket. Image: NASA

NASA's Deep Impact probe has successfully launched from Cape Canaveral and has begun its journey to Comet Tempel 1.

The space agency says that "data received from the spacecraft indicates it has deployed and locked its solar panels, is receiving power and achieved proper orientation in space". In other words, all's well so far.

When it arrives in six months time, it will send its payload off on a collision course with the comet. The impact of the 37,000kph projectile will release energy equivalent to 4.5 tons of TNT, and could blast a hole the size of the Colosseum in the comet's surface.

NASA scientists hope this hole will reveal more about the composition of the comet, so shedding light on the formation of our solar system. Comets are preserved pieces of our solar system's primordial days; leftover pieces of the original matter that went on to form the planets. Some scientists think that organic molecules needed to form life, and even speculate that much of our planet's water was carried to Earth by comets.

The fly-by section of the craft will watch the collision and will send data back to Earth. NASA's Hubble, Spitzer and Chandra space telescopes, and other terrestrial 'scopes, will also observe the crash. ®

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