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Tempel of Love

 

Tempel 1

Mosaic image of comet Tempel 1 from Deep Impact, July 2005

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.

Read more on the NASA Science News site.

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UMD

…and for info on the comparative sizes of Tempel 1, Wild 2 and other comets and asteroids spacecraft have visited, click here.

Read on LightsInTheDark.com.

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About Jason Major

Jason is a Rhode Island-based graphic designer, photographer, nature lover, space exploration fanatic, and coffee addict. In no particular order.

Posted on February 11, 2011, in Comets and Asteroids and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I am so glad you are posting! We just do not hear enough about the amazing things that scientists do every day out in our solar system and beyond. Scooping up samples of a comet’s tail, dropping them off and then heading back out into space!? Looking up close at a comet’s nucleus after it has passed the sun one more time?!
    That is amazing stuff!

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    • I agree…you’d think they could announce this stuff on the local news programs more often, especially considering it’s something good that our tax dollars are doing! Rather than building tanks and missiles we should be building machines for exploration and science, IMO.

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  2. So weird… I always in my mind pictured a comet up close would be a firey explosive body, all lit up like the way we see them standing on Earth. Never imaged it would be asteroid- like nucleus. Must be one the things that keeps me so interested in space exploration, all the unknowns, and the things that prove old ideas wrong.
    Perhaps I should do some reading but seeing this leaves me wondering, where does a comet get the energy required for the light show it displays as seen from Earth?

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    • Comets get heated by the Sun as they approach the inner solar system, which causes the ices inside them to vaporize and spray particles of ice, gas and dust out into space. These particles surround the nucleus like a cloud and eventually blow back into a long tail from the force of the solar wind. (Without the force of air in space, the dominating “wind” is caused by particles constantly streaming out from the Sun.) The tail always aims away from the Sun, regardless of the direction the comet is moving.

      The reason it’s bright is due to the high reflectivity of the icy material that composes the tail. There’s no “fire” involved! In fact, just the opposite….the encounter with comet Hartley 2 by EPOXI in November 2010 showed what appeared to be a cloud of “snowballs” surrounding the nucleus! Check it out here: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.cfm?release=2010-387

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