14 February 2011

Stardust NExT’s Date with a Comet

Posted by Ryan Anderson

Apparently NASA has a rule that the comet Tempel 1 can only be visited on holidays. Back in 2005, on the 4th of July, the Deep Impact spacecraft flew by Tempel 1 and smashed an 816 pound copper bullet into the comet. And now this Valentine’s Day the Stardust spacecraft is taking a look at the aftermath.

The Deep Impact mission back in aught five wasn’t just the fireworks show to end all fireworks shows, it also helped scientists learn about the composition and physical characteristics of the comet. One of the big surprises of the Deep Impact mission was how much stuff came blasting out of the crater. Turns out comet Tempel 1 is more like a fluffy snowbank than a hard-packed snowball. So much ejecta came out of the crater that, despite all of its successes, Deep Impact was not actually able to see the crater itself!

The plume of ejecta cause by the impactor from the Deep Impact mission was surprisingly bright, and blocked the view of the actual crater!

Luckily the Stardust spacecraft was looking for something to do after it swooped by comet Wild 2 in 2004 and returned its capsule of comet dust in 2006. With a viable spacecraft designed for comet flybys and a comet that needed to be flown-by, it was only a matter of time before some clever spacecraft engineers figured out how to use the left-over fuel on Stardust to send it to Tempel 1.

And now, after years of careful course corrections and patiently waiting, the day is upon us! Tonight the Stardust spacecraft slings past Tempel 1 and finally shows us what the spectacular plume of ejecta was hiding during the Deep Impact flyby!

If you want to follow along at home, live NASA coverage starts at 11:30pm (EST) from mission control at JPL, and video coverage from Lockheed in Denver and the flyby occurs at 11:37 pm. Confirmation of the successful flyby will come in at around midnight EST and NASA TV coverage will end at around 1:00 am EST. Coverage will resume from around 3:00am-4:30 am EST and the first five close-approach images will be shared with the world! If you aren’t going to be awake at that time, you can tune in tomorrow at 1:00 pm EST for a news briefing summarizing the results. And of course, I’ll try to post in the morning with the images (I will not be staying up until 4:30 am. I like sleeping too much.)

I’ll leave you with this video from NASA describing tonight’s encounter: