Mission control at NASA's Jet PropulsionLaboratory in Pasadena, California, broadcast live coverage of the event on NASA Television's Media Channel. Controllers broke into applause after hearing of the success.
Theagency's EPOXI Deep Impact spacecraft was expected to use two imagers and an infrared instrument to acquire data about a tiny comet named Hartley 2 as it traveled at speeds of more than27,000 miles per hour.
Scientists are still working to determine whether there was any damage to the spacecraft as the peanut-shaped comet passed by.
They hope to learn to moreabout comets from five images detailing the close approach.
"Those early images may not be the 'money shot,' but we on the science team will prize them just as well, as they will helpus further understand the nature of comets," said EPOXI principal investigator Mike A'Hearn of the University of Maryland, College Park, in a NASA statement. "We certainly have ourhands full. The images are full of great cometary data, and that's what we hoped for."
The images are expected to depict the comet nucleus as little more than a point of lightwith a fuzzy coma, a gaseous cloud, surrounding it.
"It was just incredible," Ed Weiler, associate administrator of the Science Missions Directorate for NASA, said of the encounter.Five years after NASA launched an 800-pound projectile into a comet in an effort to study its contents, the same spacecraft that launched the missile tracked Hartley 2 on Thursday.It is the first spacecraft to have visited two comets.
NASA officials expressed hope that such missions will inspire young people to get into the field of space exploration.