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NASA's comet hunting 'Deep Impact' comes to an end

A Boeing Delta II rocket carries NASA's Deep Impact spacecraft as it lifts off in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on January 13, 2005. In a first-of-its-kind mission, the spacecraft was sent to gather information about the comet Temple 1. NASA declared the mission complete on Friday, September 20.

The most-traveled comet-hunter mission in history has ended, NASA announced this Friday rather with reluctance as it shut the book on the Deep Impact spacecraft.

The mission that was started 8 years ago to study the make-up of comets was heading towards the sun in November, an encounter it was not sure to survive. The spacecraft was sent into space in 2005 for a close-up study of comet Tempel-1.

It was not just a passive experiment. The probe released a 372-kilogram metal slug that crashed into the comet's nucleus, triggering a shower of particles for analysis by the mother spacecraft and remote observatories. The spacecraft had travelled around 4.7 billion miles before coming to an unexpected end.  Though it was unable to complete its latest assignment, the comet-hunting spacecraft led a far longer life than expected.

"Despite this unexpected final curtain call, Deep Impact already achieved much more than ever was envisioned," Lindley Johnson, who oversees the program at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said in a statement.

Deep Impact has made Earth-based studies of distant comets more reliable and powerful. Having wrapped up its planned mission in six months, NASA then put the spacecraft to work on a  new mission with a brand new acronym, EPOXI (a combination of two mission names: the Extrasolar Planet Observations and Characterization, or EPOCh, and the Deep Impact Extended Investigation, or DIXI).

The spacecraft helped confirm the existence of water on the Moon, and they attempted to look for methane on Mars.

While the end was unexpected, A’Hearn said that Deep Impact will likely continue to provide more scientific results as researchers pore over the data.

"We’re ecstatic with the results we’ve got so far, and we’ve still got a lot of work analyzing those data to go," he said.