It happens every day in neighborhoods and at businesses across the country: A delivery truck pulls up, a package is unloaded and the anxious recipients open it with great expectation. They carefully unwrap it, inspect the contents for shipping damage and then try it to see how it works.
At NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, trucks deliver packages, too -- exceptionally big packages. They may leave Earth on rockets, but many spacecraft begin their journeys on wheels. One "package" that arrived recently contained a spacecraft destined to meet up with a comet some 83 million miles from Earth.
Image at Right: The Deep Impact spacecraft arrived in Florida by truck on the first leg of its journey to a comet Image credit: NASA
When the Deep Impact spacecraft was delivered to KSC in October, the truck was certainly larger than your average delivery truck. It arrived in darkness after traveling from Ball Aerospace & Technologies in Boulder, Colo., where the spacecraft was made. This "special delivery" was destined for the Astrotech Space Operations facility near Kennedy, where it is undergoing pre-launch preparation.
Workers carefully removed the top of the shipping container to reveal the future space explorer inside. The spacecraft was mechanically lifted very carefully from the container and placed on a transport stand.
Image at Left: The newly-arrived Deep Impact spacecraft is shown being carefully lifted from its shipping container. Image credit: NASA
Once the bags covering it were removed, Deep Impact was placed on a work stand so the check-out could begin. The first order of business was to place large protective covers over the solar arrays, then extend them into their open position.
In the days following delivery, tests were performed to verify the spacecraft's state of health and it received updated flight software. A series of mission readiness tests soon will be conducted involving the entire spacecraft flight system and instruments.
Once all testing is complete, the 2,152-pound spacecraft will be joined to a Delta rocket's third stage booster. That completed, the rocket will be loaded into a transportation canister and moved to the pad for its scheduled launch at the end of December.
The trip to the pad may end its Earth-bound trek, but the longer journey lies ahead.
Image at Right: The solar arrays are covered and locked into their open position. Image credit: NASA
So just what will Deep Impact do after it travels 83 million miles through space to meet up with the comet Temple1 in July 2005? The spacecraft will fire an 820-pound copper "bullet" into the comet's surface at a speed of 23,000 miles per hour.
Telescopes on Earth will be able to observe the impact and its aftermath and results will be broadcast on the Internet. By studying the photos and data of the impact, scientists and astronomers hope they will learn more about the make-up of comets and their implications, should one collide with Earth.
That promises to be quite an exciting ending to a journey that began by truck.
Cheryl L. Mansfield
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center