CONTOUR on its Way to Catch a Comet!
News story originally written on July 3, 2002
The Comet Nucleus Tour (CONTOUR), a NASA Discovery Mission, launched July 3, 2002 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The CONTOUR spacecraft will fly by at least two comets, taking pictures and collecting dust from the nucleus of each comet to help scientists answer some big questions.
“Contour is the next in the growing lineup of missions to explore small planetary bodies-such as comets and asteroids- and we expect it will add much to what little we know about these ancient samples of the solar system’s original materials,” said Dr. S.M. Krimigis of John’s Hopkins University’s Applies Physics Laboratory.
Studying the comets may help us better understand how our own solar system was formed and the composition of the outer planets. How can comets tell us this story? Because comets formed back when our solar system formed, they may be like time capsules, telling us what sorts of processes were occurring 4.6 billion years ago.
Also, studying what comets are made of may help us understand how the conditions on Earth became suitable for life to exist 3.5 billion years ago. Comets may have helped Earth become a good place for life to evolve when many comets bombarded the young Earth just before life evolved, possibly bringing water and carbon necessary for life.
To answer these scientific questions, the CONTOUR spacecraft will record data from at least two comets from the Jupiter family. It will encounter Encke, a comet with a very short orbit, in November 2003, and the Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 comet in June 2006, flying as close as 62 miles (100 km) from each comet nucleus.