A big week…

A lot has gone on for NASA in the past week. Here’s a quick recap:

1) After Comet Hartley 2 finished displaying itself in the the Northeastern sky for the past month or so, the comet was visited by NASA’s EPOXI spacecraft which successfully passed within 435 miles of the comet (the closest approach to a comet ever). You might say, 435 miles, why is that so impressive? Well when you’re in space trying to maneuver your spacecraft next to something moving at 27,000 miles per hour while constantly spraying ice-water crystals out, 435 miles is probably close enough. EPOXI, a 4.7 meter telescope normally used for deep-sky observations got several pretty spectacular images of the peanut-shaped comet.

Comets are icy, rocky bodies which orbit around the Sun in highly elliptical orbits. Many comets become visible from Earth with the naked eye as they approach the Sun in their orbit because the Sun causes their ice to melt and the resulting water vapor becomes highly reflective to sunlight. Hartley 2 was discovered in 1984 by astronomer Malcolm Hartley; it orbits the Sun every six years. Learning more about comets like Hartley might lead to more information about the formation of the Sun and our solar system.

2) The much anticipated final flight of the Space Shuttle Discovery (see previous post: “Up, up, and away…”) was delayed several times this week and ultimately postponed until November 30 due to several complications that arose. Helium and nitrogen leaks in one of the craft’s engine pods, electrical glitches in a backup computer controller in one of the main engines, and bad weather all combined to prove that NASA’s workhorse won’t go silently into retirement. Hopefully all the issues can be resolved and Discovery will be able to make its final flight and return before the end of the year.

3) Tuesday’s mid-term elections may have a bigger impact on NASA than one might have imagined. The Congressional approval of President Obama’s proposed NASA budget (see previous post: Mo’ money, mo’ problems…”) may hit a road block once Republicans take control of the House of Representatives in January. Many Republican candidates ran on platforms that included reduced domestic spending, which means that the proposed $300 million budget increase that was approved for NASA in early October might be in jeopardy. We’ll have to wait to see how this one pans out.

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