Donald Savage
Headquarters, Washington, DC
(Phone: 202/358-1547)

RELEASE: 00-26

NASA’s Comet Nucleus Tour, or CONTOUR, mission this month
took a giant step closer to its launch when the project received
approval to begin building the spacecraft.

Planned for a July 2002 launch, CONTOUR is expected to
encounter Comet Encke in November 2003 and Comet Schwassmann-
Wachmann-3 in June 2006. The mission has the flexibility to
include a flyby of Comet d’Arrest in 2008 or an as-yet
undiscovered comet, perhaps originating from beyond the orbit of
Pluto. Such an unforeseen cometary visitor to the inner solar
system, like Comet Hale-Bopp discovered in 1995, would present a
rare opportunity to conduct a close-up examination of these
mysterious, ancient objects which normally reside in the cold
depths of interstellar space.

The nucleus of a comet is its heart, believed by scientists
to be a tiny irregular chunk of ice and rock. To date only one
comet nucleus has ever been viewed by a spacecraft: Comet Halley
in 1986. CONTOUR will fly past at least two comets and take
higher resolution images than those of Halley. It will also
collect and analyze gas and dust to reveal the comet’s makeup,
greatly improving our knowledge of key characteristics of comet
nuclei and providing an assessment of their diversity. CONTOUR
also will clear up the many mysteries of how comets evolve as they
approach the Sun and their ices begin to evaporate.

The CONTOUR spacecraft will fly by each comet at the peak of
its activity when it’s close to the Sun. During each encounter,
the target comet will also be well situated in the night sky for
astronomers worldwide to make concurrent observations from the
ground. The spacecraft will fly by each comet at a distance of
about 60 miles (100 kilometers).

After successful completion of both the Preliminary Design
Review and an independent Confirmation Assessment and the
Confirmation Review at NASA Headquarters, the comet flyby project
is well on its way toward completing the spacecraft design. The
CONTOUR mission is managed for NASA by the Johns Hopkins
University Applied Physics Laboratory, in Laurel, MD. The
Principal Investigator is Dr. Joseph Veverka of Cornell
University, NY. More information on CONTOUR is available at: and