Astronomers at Australias national radio and optical observatories will watch as a probe released from a spacecraft slams into a comet about 133 million km away at a speed of nearly 37,000 km/h (10.2 km per second).
The cosmic demolition derby takes place about 4pm AEST on 4 July when the comet, Tempel 1, will be most easily seen from the mid-Pacific. The 370 kg probe, carried by NASAs Deep Impact spacecraft, has been travelling toward the comet for 173 days and has travelled over 431 million km. At the time of the collision the comet will be travelling at 108,000 km/h. The probe will be travelling in almost the same orbit at 80,000 km/h, and will hit the comet at an angle.
The impact may gouge out a crater up to 200 m across and 50 m deep, and could lead to a flow of gas and dust from the comets interior lasting for months. This outflow is what ground-based astronomers will be looking for. The comet will appear to be near the star Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo, and also near the planet Jupiter. By the time the sun sets for eastern Australia it will be high in the sky, almost due north. Before the impact the comet will not be bright enough to see with the unaided eye. The impact may brighten it, but by how much is unknown.
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