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Maryland Scientists Get Second Look At Comet

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Alex DeMetrick 370x278 Alex DeMetrick
Alex DeMetrick has been a general assignment reporter with WJZ...
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COLLEGE PARK, Md. (WJZ) — When a team headed by a University of Maryland scientist punched a hole in a comet, they had everything but a clear view.  Five years later, that may be about to change.

Alex DeMetrick reports it’s a first of its kind second look.

When it comes to comets, University of Maryland professor Michael A’Hearn wanted to hit one before one hits us.  After all, a space rock the size of a football field could ruin your day.

“If it landed in Maryland, it would destroy the whole state,” A’Hearn said.

So five years ago, NASA’s deep impact mission slammed hundreds of pounds of weight into Comet Temple One to better understand its structure and strength.

“There was so much dust flying out that they weren’t able to see the crater produced by the impact,” said Dr. Hal Weaver, JHU Applied Physics Lab.

But a second probe, Stardust, could change all that.  It turned up in the neighborhood of Temple One after completing its own mission, getting as close as 120 miles.

“This is the first time we’ve actually gone back to the same object a second time,” Weaver said.

The rendezvous was not unlike reading a road sign at 24,000 miles an hour.  Maybe allowing a good look inside that crater, as well as the wear and tear of hurtling through space.  Computer modeling shows what happens when a small comet or asteroid airbursts as one did in 1904 in Siberia.

“They probably happen every 200 years,” A’Hearn said.

Meaning the clock is running and knowledge about what’s headed in might help head it off.

The Stardust spacecraft that took Tuesday’s pictures had crossed paths earlier with another comet.  It collected dust from that encounter and sent it back to earth for analysis.

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