January 19, 2011

Spacecraft Scheduled To Meet Comet On Valentine’s Day

NASA announced on Wednesday that its Stardust-NExT spacecraft will rendezvous with comet Tempel 1 on Valentine's Day.

The space agency said that the mission will allow scientists to look for changes on the comet's surface that took place after an orbit around the sun.

The spacecraft will take high-resolution images during the encounter, and will attempt to measure the composition, distribution, and flux of dust emitted into the coma.

According to NASA, the mission will expand the investigation of the comet initiated by NASA's Deep Impact mission.

The Deep Impact spacecraft delivered an impactor to the surface of the comet in July 2005 in order to study its composition. 

The Stardust spacecraft may capture an image of the crater that the impactor made, which NASA said would be a bonus to the amount of data that mission scientists expect to obtain.

"Every day we are getting closer and closer and more and more excited about answering some fundamental questions about comets," Joe Veverka, Stardust-NExT principal investigator at Cornell University, said in a press release. "Going back for another look at Tempel 1 will provide new insights on how comets work and how they were put together four-and-a-half billion years ago."

NASA said that its Stardust-NExT spacecraft will be almost on the exact opposite side of the solar system at 209 million miles away from earth.

The spacecraft is currently 15.3 million miles away from Tempel 1.  Stardust has executed eight flight path correction maneuvers, logged four circuits around the sun and used one Earth gravity assist since 2007 to meet up with Tempel 1.

NASA is planning another three maneuvers to refine the spacecraft's path to the comet.

"You could say our spacecraft is a seasoned veteran of cometary campaigns," Tim Larson, project manager for Stardust-NExT at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a press release. "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."


Image 1: Artist rendering of Stardust-NExT spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL

Image 2: Nucleus imaged by the Deep Impact impactor. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UMD


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