All packed up and ready for its long-awaited trip, NASA’s CONTOUR spacecraft
left home in Maryland today for Cape Canaveral, Fla., site of its scheduled
July 1 launch toward an unprecedented comet study.

Secured in an air-ride, climate-controlled shipping container, CONTOUR set
out from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt and will reach Cape
Canaveral Air Force Station/Kennedy Space Center later this week. CONTOUR –
short for Comet Nucleus Tour – had spent the past eight weeks being baked,
frozen, spun, shaken and probed in Goddard’s test facilities, getting a dose
of the conditions it will face during launch and in space.

“Our spacecraft is ready and the team is anxious to start final preparations
for launch,” says CONTOUR Project Manager Mary C. Chiu, of the Johns Hopkins
University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., which designed and
built the compact 8-sided, 6-foot by 7-foot spacecraft.

After a predawn launch aboard a Boeing Delta II rocket, CONTOUR will
encounter two very different comets as they zoom through the inner solar
system. From as close as 60 miles (about 100 kilometers) away, the
spacecraft will snap the sharpest pictures yet of a comet’s nucleus, map the
types of rock and ice on the surface and analyze the surrounding gas and
dust. CONTOUR’s target comets include Encke in November 2003 and
Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 in June 2006, though the mission team can steer the
solar-powered probe to a scientifically attractive “new” comet should the
opportunity arise.

“CONTOUR will provide the most detailed data yet on these ancient building
blocks of the solar system,” says Dr. Joseph Veverka, the mission’s
principal investigator from Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. “By studying at
least two comets, we’ll be able to assess their diversity and begin to clear
up the many mysteries of how comets evolve.”

CONTOUR is part of NASA’s Discovery Program of lower-cost, highly focused
space science investigations. APL manages the mission for NASA and will
operate the spacecraft. Veverka leads a team of 18 co-investigators from
universities, industry and government agencies in the U.S. and Europe.


NASA Discovery Program Web site: