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'We Hit It!'

Boom
Comet Tempel 1, 67 seconds after impact, taken by the high-resolution camera on the Deep Impact's flyby craft.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Deep Impact Imaging Team

The scientists and onlookers crammed into Palomar Observatory's 200-inch telescope control room knew that comet Tempel 1 had been hit by NASA's Deep Impact mission when they heard the voice of Spitzer Staff Scientist Dr. Bidushi Bhattacharya yelling, "Wow, it's getting brighter ... We hit it!"

The roars of "wows," "ooos," and "ahhhs" from the crowded room drew in the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) camera crew waiting in the next room for the results of Deep Impact.

"James, do you have two minutes for an interview?" asked a BBC crew member.

As soon as Dr. James Bauer, JPL Scientist and principal investigator for the Palomar observations, vacated his seat, I listened to my instincts and pushed up to the front of the room to get a better view of the comet.

Sitting next to me was Dr. Bhattacharya. Working from three computers, she rolled her chair back and forth charting information on her laptop, keeping an eye on the incoming Tempel 1 data, and taking images of the comet in different near-infrared wavelengths to get a better idea of what particles were actually being emitted.

On most days, Dr. Bhattacharya can be found on the second floor of the Spitzer Science Center (SSC) working with the telescope's Infrared Array Camera (IRAC), a four-channel Spitzer instrument which can simultaneously take images of the sky in the wavelength ranges 3.6, 4.5, 5.8, and 8 microns. That is actually where I met her. After writing a preliminary article on Spitzer's role in Deep Impact for my first assignment as Spitzer's public affairs writer, she invited me to join her at Palomar to witness the collision.

Using research time allotted to all Spitzer Science Center astronomers, she left her office in Pasadena two days before impact to join her colleagues at Palomar. Atop this mountain she monitored near-infrared light from comet Tempel 1 using the observatory's 200-inch telescope.

In an earlier conversation Dr. Bauer told me that "Dr. Bhattacharya's expertise in solar system observations combined with her IRAC observing experience makes her a crucial part of this team."

"Look, there's another jet at 10 o'clock... there goes another at 2 o'clock...," Dr. Bhattacharya continued to shout.

"This is so cool... thanks for inviting me," I whispered to her.

Seeing Stars for the First Time

Of the 11 people packed into this six-foot-wide telescope control room, or even among the 30-some people at Palomar that night (BBC crew included), I was perhaps the only person without an astronomy background. Until that night, I had also never been to an observatory or seen Jupiter in the night sky.

An unfortunate part of being born and raised in Los Angeles, or any urban area, is that bright city lights oftentimes outshine the stars. On this night, in the hours before impact, I was fortunate to be standing 5,500 ft above those lights with friendly amateur and professional astronomers who enthusiastically pointed out areas of interest to a clueless urbanite.

"Look there's Jupiter and there's Venus," said Scott Kardel, Palomar Observatory's Public Affairs Coordinator.

Shooting a laser pointer into the dark sky, Kardel then indicated that I turn my attention to the bright star above my head.

"This is where the Tempel 1 will be at the moment of impact," he said. "And do you see this bright object scampering across the sky? ... That's the Hubble Space Telescope."

"That is so cool," was the only response that I could muster up.

I recalled both Drs. Bhattacharya and Bauer's earlier comment that "Palomar will have one of the best ground views of Deep Impact primarily because of location."

In California, Deep Impact occurred hours after sunset and allowed for a clear view of the comet. Meanwhile, other parts of the world had to fight sunlight for a glimpse of the collision. As the Earth's rotation and Tempel 1's orbit moved the comet out of Palomar's view, telescopes in Hawaii and other parts of the world continued to record the comet's emissions.

"Each telescope is different and each instrument will provide us with another insight to the event," said Dr. Bhattacharya.

As I scanned the dark horizon trying to make out famous constellations, BBC reporter Chris Lintott offered me his binoculars. "Point this at the Milky Way," he advised.

When I turned my eyes to the glowing band streaking across the sky, he whispered, "This is how I became interested in astronomy."



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