ITHACA, N.Y., Oct. 21, 1997 -- NASA today announced that Cornell University will lead and direct a $154 millon mission to conduct close-proximity comet fly-bys scheduled for launch early in the next century. Cornell's award was the largest single mission grant in the school's 129-year history.
The Comet Nucleus Tour mission -- nicknamed Contour -- will be led by Joseph Veverka, Cornell professor of astronomy. The unmanned mission will take images and comparative spectral maps of at least three comet nuclei and analyze the dust and gas flowing from them. The mission's goals are to dramatically improve knowledge of the key characteristics of comet nuclei and to assess their diversity.
NASA said the mission is scheduled for launch in July 2002 -- aboard a Delta rocket -- with its first comet fly-by to occur in November 2003. The Contour spacecraft will be outfitted with a solar array for power and a high-gain antenna for communication with Earth. The Contour spacecraft, which will be built by the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, will venture about 30 million miles from Earth to study the comets.
As principal investigator, Veverka said Contour's initial fly-by will visit Comet Encke in 2003 at a distance of about 60 miles, and will be followed by similar encounters with Comet Schwassmann-Wachmann-3 in June 2006 and Comet d'Arrest in August 2008.
"We think that there are millions of comets inhabiting the environs of the solar system, and studying the composition of comets will tell us something about the beginnings of the solar system," said Yervant Terzian, the James A. Weeks Professor of Physical Sciences and chair of Cornell's Department of Astronomy.
"The Contour project led by Cornell will be one of the first important space missions launched in the next century," said Cornell President Hunter Rawlings. "I congratulate Joe Veverka and his science team as they embark on this exciting intellectual enterprise."
Joining Veverka on Cornell's mission team are Steven W. Squyres, Cornell professor of astronomy; and James Bell and Peter C. Thomas, Cornell senior research associates in the Astronomy Department's Center for Radiophysics and Space Research.
While Cornell University has received larger amounts of funding for direct projects such as the Arecibo telescope facility in Puerto Rico and the Cornell Theory Center in Ithaca, this grant was the largest for a single mission, according to Jack Lowe, Cornell associate vice president of research and director of Cornell Sponsored Programs.
NASA today also awarded $216 million to the California Institute of Technology for the Genesis mission, which will be launched in January 2001, to collect samples of charged particles for study of the solar wind.
The two awards today were among 34 proposals originally submitted to NASA in December 1996 and are part of NASA's Discovery Program, which deliver extensive scientific research for lower costs.
Contour and Genesis follow four previously selected NASA Discovery missions. The Mars Pathfinder lander, carrying the rover Sojourner, landed successfully July 4 on Mars and returned spectacular images and information on the Martian environment. The Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) returned sharp images of the asteroid Mathilde in June of this year.
NASA's Lunar Prospector orbiter mission to map the Moon's composition and gravity field is scheduled for launch next January and the Stardust mission is scheduled for a February 1999 launch to gather dust from Comet Wild-2 in 2004 and return it to Earth.