ASTRONOMERS in Hobart, Perth and Canberra will play an integral role on Monday in a dramatic American space experiment to discover what lies within comets.
NASA's Deep Impact space mission will send a 360kg impactor into the path of a comet known as Tempel 1. The mission's main aim is to discover the difference between a comet's surface and its centre, but scientists say results could shed light on the solar system's formation and evolution. After releasing the impactor, the main spacecraft or flyby craft will travel alongside for 13 minutes and collect information.
Tasmanian astronomer Stefan Dieters said yesterday the Hobart team had been monitoring Tempel 1 for about two months.
He said Deep Impact -- the first space mission to attempt to break the surface of a comet -- could reveal how craters were formed naturally.
"Comets represent the original material that made up the solar system," he said.
Dr Dieters said at least 60 observatories in 20 countries would monitor the collision.
NASA observatories, including the Hubble Space Telescope, will provide basic information on the comet, but scientists are collecting observations worldwide from professionals and amateurs.
Astronomers at the University of Tasmania's Mt Canopus Observatory had been hired to track the comet and assist with navigation.
The Tasmanian team works with sites in Perth, South Africa and Chile.
Mt Pleasant Radio Observatory, in Tasmania's south, and Tidbinbilla Deep Space Tracking Station in Canberra will monitor flyby craft images after the impact.
"Comets are so much unknown ... it's going to be quite fun just to see what happens," Dr Dieters said. "There's nothing like making little explosions."
The comet will be at a position about 133 million kilometres from Earth during the impact, meaning no danger for observers on Earth.
"In terms of masses and speeds and momentum it's like a mosquito hitting a Mack truck. The mosquito's not going to divert the Mack truck one iota," he said.
More information on the Deep Impact space mission is available at www1.nasa.gov/mission_pages/deepimpact/main
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