Once upon a time a spacecraft really did have a five-year mission.
It is NASA’s EPOXI spacecraft, which paid its second visit to a comet since 2005 when it flew past and photographed the Hartley 2 comet on November 4.
The EPOXI mission is recycling the Deep Impact spacecraft, whose probe intentionally collided with comet Tempel 1 on July 4, 2005, revealing, for the first time, the inner material of a comet. In fact, I have been able to find a whole riff I did about comets, with a preview of Deep Impact’s first mission for the late, lamented Trufen.net (scroll down).
CNN’s coverage of today mission used the word “survived” in its lead, dramatically implying the spacecraft had gone in harm’s way:
A spacecraft survived the closest encounter ever with a comet on Thursday, tracking it just 435 miles (700 kilometers) from the comet’s nucleus.
Since 435 miles is farther than Los Angeles is from San Francisco my initial reaction wasn’t to gasp in amazement. Yet people in San Francisco give the impression they’d like to be even farther away, so who can say? NASA also says comet Hartley 2 is “much more active” than Tempel 1, the previous comet visited by Deep Impact, despite being smaller. Smaller and much more active – there’s San Francisco all over again.
Amateur skywatchers may be able to see Hartley 2 in a dark sky with binoculars or a small telescope.