After more than a month of communications silence from the Deep Impact spacecraft, NASA on Friday formally declared an end to its nine-year, comet-exploring mission.
The spacecraft made considerable impact in 2005 when it smashed a comet with a projectile to give scientists a peek at the interior. Though it completed its original mission in just six months, Deep Impact went on to rendezvous with two more comets and served as a spaceborne planetary observatory.
"Deep Impact has been a fantastic, long-lasting spacecraft that has produced far more data than we had planned," Mike A'Hearn, the mission's principal investigator at the University of Maryland in College Park, said in a statement. "It has revolutionized our understanding of comets and their activity."
Timothy Larson, the project manager for Deep Impact at Pasadena's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told KPCC that the mission was a "great example of how NASA gets the most they can out of all of their spacecraft that they send up." He also acknowledged that the decision came as a disappointment for many who worked on the project over the years.
"Some of the folks we've had working with the project have been on it off and on since it launched back in 2005, so people have developed a strong attachment to the spacecraft and what it can do, so everybody's a little sad to see it go," Larson said.
Last month, engineers lost contact with Deep Impact and unsuccessfully tried to regain communications. The cause of the failure was unknown, but NASA suspects the spacecraft lost control, causing its antenna and solar panels to be pointed in the wrong direction.
During the mission, Deep Impact beamed back 500,000 images including of comet Ison, which could shine as bright as the moon when it makes a close approach in November.
This series of images of comet C/2012 S1 (ISON) was taken by the Medium-Resolution Imager of NASA's Deep Impact spacecraft over a 36-hour period on Jan. 17 and 18, 2013. At the time, the spacecraft was 493 million miles (793 million kilometers) from the comet. | Credit: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
The spacecraft also helped scientists gain a better understanding of where comets come from and the stuff they're made of.
"One big finding out of the original impact of comet Tempel 1 is how porous and loosely packed the comet nucleus is. ... It's been likened to the consistency of a pretty dry, fluffy snowbank," Larson said.
Watch an animation of Deep Impact's original mission to study Tempel 1:
This animation chronicles the travels of NASA's Deep Impact spacecraft, from its launch in January of 2005 to its dramatic impact 172 days later with comet Tempel 1. The times were updated on July 2, 2005, and differ from those referred to in the animation. | NASA/JPL-Caltech via ItsARandomChannel on YouTube
Another development: measurements of the amount of carbon dioxide and water on the comets lead some scientists to believe some comets may have formed much closer to the center of the solar system rather than far on the outer reaches, Larson said.
Since there's no way for ground controllers to talk to Deep Impact, the spacecraft will continue on its path around the sun until it runs out of fuel.
And for anyone wondering, the spacecraft's name did not come from the eponymous 1998 film about a comet on a deadly collision course with Earth — it's just a coincidence, Larson said.