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Stardust spacecraft chases Deep Impact's comet
Posted: 25 January 2011

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NASA's comet-chasing Stardust spacecraft is gearing up for a Valentine's Day date with Comet Tempel-1. Previously visited by Deep Impact six years ago, the rendezvous will be the first to examine the changes to a comet after it has journeyed around the Sun.

Comets, which are the oldest, most primitive bodies in the Solar System, preserve the building blocks of the Sun, planets and even life on Earth. They are also thought to play a role in delivering water and organic material to the Earth and other planets, and so learning about their composition is a vital step towards understanding the formation of the Solar System itself.

The iconic image from the Deep Impact mission moments after its impactor was deployed into Tempel-1's surface, alongside the comet's new visitor, Stardust-NExT. Image: NASA.

In July 2005 the Deep Impact spacecraft sent an impactor headlong into Comet Tempel-1 to analyse the composition of the debris thrown out of the crater in order to study the internal make-up of the comet. So much material streamed out of the cavity that the formation of the crater itself was obscured. But one of the aims of the new mission, rebranded Stardust-NExT (New Exploration of Tempel), will seek to identify and examine the crater.

Stardust first made headlines in 2004 having successfully rendezvoused with comet Wild-2, collected samples from its coma and jettisoned them back to Earth for analysis, which arrived safely two years later. Since then, it has been journeying towards Tempel-1 to make vital follow-up observations. The mission will be the first of its kind to revisit a comet, and the separation of six years, during which time Tempel-1 has looped around the Sun, will allow scientists to look at the changes that occur on a comet's surface after this high activity phase of a comet's orbit that sees an increase in outburst activity, its icy components evaporating and trapping dust grains which form a coma of material around its ice-rock core, or nucleus.

Features identified on Tempel-1 in the Deep Impact mission, such as the smooth zone seen near the -60 degrees label, will be studied again by Stardust-NExT to see if any changes have occurred after the comet as transited around the Sun. Image: NASA/UM/Cornell/Peter Thomas and Tony Farnham.

Tempel-1's orbit takes it as close to the Sun as Mars is, and almost to the distance of Jupiter. When Stardust-NExT makes its encounter it will be over 335 million kilometres away from Earth, and will swoop past the 6 kilometre-wide comet at a distance of 200 kilometres. Snapping 72 high resolution images it will follow up on the study of interesting features already observed on the comet's surface, such as smooth flow regions and active zones. The activity of the comet will also be monitored as the spacecraft approaches its target.

Although not the first spacecraft to visit two comets – in November last year the Deep Impact spacecraft flew by comet Hartley 2 (read more about that here) – Stardust-NExT will be the first spacecraft to compare the properties of two different comets using the same instruments, which will allow the most accurate data comparison yet.

“You could say our spacecraft is a seasoned veteran of cometary campaigns,” says Tim Larson, project manager for Stardust-NExT. “It’s been half-way to Jupiter, executed picture-perfect flybys of an asteroid and a comet, collected cometary material for return to Earth, then headed back out into the void again, where we asked it to go head-to-head with a second comet nucleus.”

The spacecraft is currently scheduled to make its date with the comet at 11:37pm EST on 14 February. The first images are expected to be available from approximately 4:30am EST on 15 February.

The Planets
From tiny Mercury to distant Neptune and Pluto, The Planets profiles each of the Solar System's members in depth, featuring the latest imagery from space missions. The tallest mountains, the deepest canyons, the strongest winds, raging atmospheric storms, terrain studded with craters and vast worlds of ice are just some of the sights you'll see on this 100-page tour of the planets.

Hubble Reborn
Hubble Reborn takes the reader on a journey through the Universe with spectacular full-colour pictures of galaxies, nebulae, planets and stars as seen through Hubble's eyes, along the way telling the dramatic story of the space telescope, including interviews with key scientists and astronauts.

3D Universe
Witness the most awesome sights of the Universe as they were meant to be seen in this 100-page extravaganza of planets, galaxies and star-scapes, all in 3D!


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