This Valentine’s Day – that’s Monday, guys! – NASA’s Stardust spacecraft will have an out-of-this-world date with a heavenly body: the comet Tempel 1, seen above in an image mosaic taken by the Deep Impact spacecraft nearly six years ago.
On July 4, 2005, Deep Impact made a rendezvous with Tempel 1, passing as close as 310 miles (500 km) from the comet’s nucleus. It released an 820-lb copper probe that impacted with Tempel 1, kicking up a huge plume of bright material from the comet’s surface – so huge, in fact, that scientists were unable to achieve their goal of peering beneath the surface layers via the impact crater. (Watch a video of the impact.)
Now Tempel 1 is getting another visit, this time by Stardust – a spacecraft with its own past history of a successful cometary hookup. Launched in 1999, Stardust met up with comet Wild 2 in 2004, passing within 186 miles (300 km) of the comet and successfully obtaining samples of the comet’s tail. Embedded in an aerogel medium, a super-lightweight silica substance that’s nearly 99% air, the sample was dropped back to Earth and Stardust headed back out into space. Rather than leave it to roam the inner solar system with nothing to do, NASA decided to recycle Stardust and have it meet up with Tempel 1 during the comet’s return approach around the Sun. The mission was dubbed Stardust-NExT, the addition standing for “New Exploration of Tempel”.
In addition to the opportunity to get another look at the crater left by Deep Impact’s probe in 2005, scientists will also be able to see what has happened to Tempel 1 since its last solar visit. Comets vent out a lot of material as they circle the Sun and this will hopefully give us a look at what changes have taken place on Tempel 1’s surface, which itself has proven to be full of intriguing features.
“Deep Impact gave us tantalizing glimpses of Temple 1, and we saw strange and unusual things we’d like a closer look at.”
– Joe Veverka, principal investigator for Stardust-NExT mission
This Valentine’s Day Stardust-NExT will prove that there can be a lot to learn the second time around.
…and for info on the comparative sizes of Tempel 1, Wild 2 and other comets and asteroids spacecraft have visited, click here.