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NASA Spacecraft Completes Comet Flyby

February 15, 2011

NASA’s Stardust spacecraft spent its Valentine’s Day getting cozy with a comet, snapping more than 70 photographs of Tempel 1 during a Monday flyby, the US space agency has announced.

Stardust flew past Tempel 1 at speeds in excess of 24,000mph, AP Science Writer Alicia Chang reported on Tuesday. Officials from the NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California report that the time of closest approach was 11:39pm EST, when the craft passed within 112 miles of the comet.

As of Tuesday morning, six of the estimated 72 images captured by Stardust have been received by the NASA laboratory and posted online at both the Stardust and JPL websites.

Additional images will become available throughout the day, NASA representatives said in a press release, and a press conference will be held later on Tuesday after scientists have received and had time to fully analyze all of the information and images captured during the encounter.

According to Chang, however, there was some concern among NASA officials as the spacecraft started downloading the images in chronological order, not in reverse order as it had been instructed to do. Chang reports that the agency “had planned to wow the world by playing back the images in reverse order, starting with five close-up pictures of Tempel 1′s nucleus.”

“We still don’t understand fully why this didn’t work the way we planned,” Chris Jones, an associate director at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told the AP reporter. Likewise, NASA scientists told BBC News Science Correspondent Jonathan Amos that they were not concerned.

In a press release, NASA called this “a bonus mission” for Stardust, which had previously encountered the comet Wild 2 and successfully returned samples from its coma to Earth. The purpose of the mission is to study Tempel 1 and catalog any changes to the comet since it was last encountered by a NASA spacecraft in July 2005.

Image Caption: NASA’s Stardust-NExT mission took this image of comet Tempel 1 at 8:39 p.m. PST (11:39 p.m. EST) on Feb 14, 2011. The comet was first visited by NASA’s Deep Impact mission in 2005. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell

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