Capping nearly two years of detailed development and assembly, engineers at The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, are putting the last touches on the CONTOUR spacecraft, which will provide the closest and most detailed look ever into the icy heart of a comet.
Slated to launch July 1, 2002, CONTOUR (Comet Nucleus Tour) will encounter at least two diverse comets as they zip through the inner solar system. From as close as 100 miles (160 kilometers) away, the spacecraft will snap high-resolution photos of the comet nucleus, map the types of rock and ice on the nucleus, and analyze the composition of the surrounding gas and dust. CONTOUR’s targets include comet Encke in November 2003 and Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 in June 2006, though the mission team can send the spacecraft to an as-yet undiscovered comet should such a valuable opportunity arise.
Currently parked in an APL clean room, CONTOUR has had all onboard systems tested, including all four of its scientific instruments: two cameras, a dust analyzer and a mass spectrometer. Over the next week, APL technicians will attach solar panels and the final layers of the resilient,Kevlar-and-Nextel dust shield designed to protect CONTOURfrom speeding bullet-like particles around the comets.
Environmental testing on the craft begins Jan. 14 on APL’s large vibration tables. On Jan. 28, CONTOUR will ship to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, for nearly three months of additional tests in Goddard’s expansive facilities.
“These rigorous checks will verify that CONTOUR can stand up to the shaking during launch and the harsh conditions of outer space,” says Edward Reynolds, CONTOUR mission system engineer at APL.
In May, CONTOUR will leave Goddard for Kennedy Space Center, Florida, in final preparation for launch aboard a Boeing Delta II rocket.
CONTOUR is the next launch in NASA’s Discovery Program of low-cost, scientifically focused missions. APL manages the CONTOUR mission for NASA and will operate the spacecraft. Dr. Joseph Veverka of Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, is CONTOUR’s principal investigator. For more information, visit the CONTOUR Web site at HTTP://www.contour2002.org.
The Applied Physics Laboratory, a division of The Johns Hopkins University, meets critical national challenges through the innovative application of science and technology. For more information, visit http://www.jhuapl.edu.
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