All packed up and ready for its long-awaited trip, NASA's CONTOUR spacecraft left home in Maryland last week for Cape Canaveral, Fla., site of its scheduled July 1 launch toward an unprecedented comet study.
Secured in an air-ride, climate-controlled shipping container, CONTOUR set out from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt for Cape Canaveral Air Force Station/Kennedy Space Center on April 23. CONTOUR--short for Comet Nucleus Tour--had spent eight weeks being baked, frozen, spun, shaken and probed in Goddard's test facilities, getting a dose of the conditions it will face during launch and in space.
"Our spacecraft is ready and the team is anxious to start final preparations for launch," says CONTOUR project manager Mary C. Chiu, of the Applied Physics Laboratory, which designed and built the compact eight-sided, 6-foot-by-7-foot spacecraft.
After a predawn launch aboard a Boeing Delta II rocket, CONTOUR will encounter two very different comets as they zoom through the inner solar system. From as close as 60 miles away, the spacecraft will snap the sharpest pictures yet of a comet's nucleus, map the types of rock and ice on the surface and analyze the surrounding gas and dust. CONTOUR's target comets include Encke in November 2003 and Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 in June 2006, though the mission team can steer the solar-powered probe toward a scientifically attractive "new" comet should the opportunity arise.
"CONTOUR will provide the most detailed data yet on these ancient building blocks of the solar system," says Joseph Veverka, the mission's principal investigator, from Cornell University. "By studying at least two comets, we'll be able to assess their diversity and begin to clear up the many mysteries of how comets evolve."
CONTOUR is part of NASA's Discovery Program of lower-cost, highly focused space science investigations. APL manages the mission for NASA and will operate the spacecraft. Veverka leads a team of 18 co-investigators from universities, industry and government agencies in the United States and Europe. For more information on CONTOUR, go to http://www.contour2002.org.