Publication: The Sun
Deep Impact attacks comet
NASA staged a war of the worlds yesterday as its Deep Impact spacecraft launched a spectacular attack on a distant comet.
An 820lb smart bomb scored a direct hit on the cosmic wanderer, called Tempel 1, blasting a crater the size of Wembley Stadium in its surface.
The massive explosion, 83million miles from Earth, had the force of 4.5 tons of TNT and caused a brilliant flare as icy debris was sent shooting into space.
A mini webcam on the fridge-sized missile sent back detailed images of the head of the comet as it homed in at 23,000mph -11 times the speed of a rifle bullet in a scene like the movie Armageddon.
It snapped pictures of craters and ridges, some just eight inches across. The last image was taken just three seconds before impact.
Pictures of the resulting fireworks - on American Independence Day - were taken by cameras aboard the unmanned spacecraft that had fired the missile.
The strike on the comet, half the size of the Isle of Wight, released material that had been in deep-freeze since the solar system was formed 4.5billion years ago. Scientists hope analysing it will give a new insight into how the sun and planets formed.
Last night they said they had detected water -an essential ingredient for life. Some scientists believe comets first brought water -and the equally essential carbon -to spark life on Earth.
Open University professor Monica Grady, president of the UK's Society for Popular Astronomy, said: "If we want to understand how the solar system was put together we have to understand these building blocks -and the building blocks of life are part of comets."
As the first stunning pictures of the mission appeared on Nasa screens there were huge cheers and applause at mission control in Pasadena, California. Scientists Dan Kubitschek and Steve Collins hugged, right, while comet expert Donald Yeomans said: "We've had a far bigger explosion than we anticipated. I can't imagine how this could go any better."
With the mission a success, Nasa officials admitted they had been worried that they would miss their moving target. Project manager Rick Grammier explained: " It is the equivalent of hitting a bullet with a bullet while taking pictures from a third bullet flying by." Nasa scientists also hope learning about Tempel 1's make-up will help them to destroy any other comet that threatens to collide with the Earth in future.
Tempel 1 is not a threat but other comets and asteroids do cross our orbit. Nasa may one day have to blast one to pieces -just like in the movie Armageddon -to prevent it striking our planet.
The £189 million Deep Impact spacecraft was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on January 12 on its 268 million-mile journey through space.
Professor Keith Mason, Director of the Mullard Space Science Laboratory at University College in London, was observing the explosion remotely with a telescope aboard Nasa's Swift space telescope.
Another British scientist watching events closely was Professor Iwan Williams, of Queen Mary College, University of London. He is a lead scientist on the European Space Agency's own mission, Rosetta, which will land on another comet - Churyumov-Gerasimenko -in 2014.
Yesterday an elated Professor Williams said: "What we've seen so far is absolutely fantastic." And Nasa's Charles Elachi joked: "There is a comet up in the sky asking, 'What in the heck happened?'"