WASHINGTON — NASA agreed Thursday to give the first spacecraft to explore a comet to the National Air and Space Museum, but there is one hitch. The probe is millions of miles away and will not return for 28 years.
But, when the half-ton International Cometary Explorer reaches Earth's orbit in August, 2014, National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials hope that their 21st-Century successors will send astronauts to retrieve it.
"Perhaps 28 years from now, the real ICE will be picked up by the follow-on to the space shuttle and brought back to this museum," NASA Administrator James C. Fletcher said. He signed a "Joint Declaration of Intent" with museum Director James Tyler, saying NASA will transfer title of the spacecraft to the museum "upon such future date at which the technical utility of the spacecraft to NASA and other government agencies is exhausted."
The spacecraft made history last year when it flew through the tail of comet Giacobini-Zinner when it was 44 million miles from Earth, becoming the first spacecraft to encounter a comet. The probe, launched eight years ago, produced the first direct evidence that comets are basically dirty snowballs.