Tuesday, July 5, 2005

"Deep Impact" Will Have Deep Impact

Yesterday, 83 million miles from Earth, part of NASA’s Deep Impact space-probe slammed into Comet Tempel 1 at 23,000 miles per hour, the impact occurring with a force equivalent to four tons of TNT. The impact, caught on camera and transmitted back to Earth by Deep Impact’s second stage, hovering nearby, “stunned scientists” with its size and brightness, says today’s New York Times.

Radio communications between ground stations and Deep Impact take more than seven minutes each way, at 83,000,000 miles distance, so the final rendezvous of Deep Impact and Comet Tempel 1 (both moving objects), was controlled by the spacecraft’s own internal guidance system, which, three hours prior to impact, made three different course maneuvers to hit a particular, well-lit spot on the sunny side of Tempel 1. The probe impacted “right on target.”

Quite a triumph for NASA, and the Principal Investigators on the project at the University of Maryland and at Brown University, and for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California; but around the world, the general staffs of the major powers have just been shown something quite ominous, for them. The Pentagon, for its part, should be quite pleased.

Deep Impact demonstrates beyond argument that robot spacecraft can intercept fast moving objects, at great distance, under their own power and navigational control. The interceptor was able to alter its course to pick the best spot for interception – all while moving at 23,000 miles per hour. The military implications should be obvious: Not only does the United States have the ability to intercept comets for scientific purposes, or to attempt deflection of comets or asteroids threatening collision with the Earth – but the same technologies can be used to intercept other items – such as Ballistic Missile warheads. Deep Impact shows that Ballistic Missile Defense can succeed, and that the United States can be made safe from missile attack, assuming it summons the political will to spend the money.

There is no excuse now not to proceed with Ballistic Missile Defense. Most assuredly Deep Impact’s success yesterday will spur other powers to do so.

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