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  • Elizabeth Cocking

Did You know? Intentional crash landings

This Month . . . Intentional crashed landings. Things that go bump in the night!

Sometimes it helps astronomers and space engineers to deliberately crash a spacecraft or probe into an astronomical body. Here are some of the deliberate crash landings that WERE MEANT to happen and what astronomers learnt from the resulting BANG !

NASA's Magellan spacecraft made a dramatic conclusion to its highly successful mission to Venus when it was commanded to plunge into the planet's atmosphere on the 11th October 1994. During its four year orbit around Venus the spacecraft radar-mapped 98 percent of the surface and collected high-resolution gravity data of the planet. The purpose of the crash landing was to gain data on the planet's atmosphere and on the performance of the spacecraft as it descended.

When the Galileo spacecraft was almost out of fuel NASA deliberately sent it on a suicide plunge into Jupiter on the 21st September 2003. If the spacecraft was left to crash on its own it could risk an impact with one of Jupiter's moons, particularly Europa which is believed to have liquid water oceans under a thick sheet of ice. Europa and Ganymede have salty oceans and are considered likely homes for alien life. NASA wasn't willing to risk contaminating these environments.

On the 4th July 2005 NASA's Deep Impact spacecraft successfully collided with Comet Tempel at 37,000 kilometres per hour gouging out a crater about 150 metres wide. It was designed to study the interior composition of the comet. Photographs taken by the spacecraft showed the comet to be more dusty and less icy than had been expected. The image below of the impact is copyright ESA.

ESA - NASA's Deep Impact hitting Comet Tempel

The European Space Agency's (ESA) Rosetta spacecraft was successful to the last, crash-landing on Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko within a minute of its scheduled impact on the 30th September 2016. The orbiter's final resting place has been named Sais, after the site in Egypt where the mission's namesake, the Rosetta Stone, was originally displayed. The crash landing was designed to give scientists the closest possible images and measurements of dust, gas and plasma from a comet. Rosetta sent back a continuous stream of data as it drifted down to the comet’s surface.

The Cassini space probe was deliberately crashed via a controlled fall into Saturn's atmosphere on the 15th September 2017 ending its nearly twenty year mission. This method was chosen to prevent biological contamination of any of the moons of Saturn now thought to offer potentially habitable environments.

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