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Halley's summit

VEGA 1 may be a Soviet spacecraft. But its close-up imaging of Halley's comet is a scientific triumph that benefits all humanity. It is also an example of East-West cooperation which transcends political tensions for this larger goal.

Both Vega 1 and its sister craft, Vega 2, which intercepts the comet Sunday, carry instruments from several countries, including the United States. Vega data are being relayed quickly to the European Space Agency to help it aim its own Giotto comet probe, which is to fly within a few hundred miles of Halley March 13. Moreover, data from the close-in inspection of the Giacobini-Zinner comet by the United States/European ICE probe in September helped Soviet controllers aim Vega 1. Now, the US Deep Space Tracking network is helping the Soviets keep contact with their ships.

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Together with two Japanese craft, which will inspect the comet from greater distances, this international research fleet could help revolutionize our scientific understanding of comets. Its findings could also give deeper insight into the early history of the solar system, since the composition of comets should reflect primordial conditions.

Everyone benefits from this project, which lets the Soviets show off part of their space program without compromising the secrecy over the rest of it.

For American scientists, this is also the best opportunity some of them will have to study Halley's comet. The US has no spacecraft in the Halley fleet. It lost the opportunity to back up the fleet's observations with detailed studies from a sophisticated orbiting observatory when the space shuttle fleet was grounded. It seems ironic, though, that they will participate in the Soviet studies as members of West German and Hungarian teams, because there is no formal agreement that would allow them to work officially with the Soviets.

Soviet space scientists say they would like to work more closely with American space experts. They even warm to the suggestion of a joint US-Soviet trek on Mars. Such closer cooperation in space is hostage to the larger considerations of summit diplomacy. The Soviets, among other things, want the United States to drop its Strategic Defense Initiative antimissile program as a condition for cozier relations in space. Space scientists cannot hope for closer working relationships than the diplomatic climate allows. But when they can cooperate, they sometimes share in projects earning historic scientific payoffs.

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