Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Glitches delay return of comet images

Weather and technical glitches have slowed the transmission of images to Earth from Monday night's close flyby of the comet Tempel 1 by NASA's Startdust-NExT mission.

Mission managers say the Stardust spacecraft successfully took 72 high-resolution science images of the comet from as close as 112 miles, and there's no concern that the images are lost.

However, after delays because of poor weather affecting a ground station in Spain, the spacecraft is not transmitting images back in the order commanded. The first image returned after 4 a.m. EST was the first one taken, rather than one of the five from closest approach.

The image showed a small, bright ball against the blackness of space, offering little detail but encouragement that Tempel 1 was well positioned to provide good information in later pictures.

"They’re not lost, and the targeting was quite good," said Chris Jones, associate director at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said of the pictures. "I think we’re pleased with what we’ve got, we just haven’t gotten the spacecraft to behave the way we wanted it to."

With the pictures arriving one by one in the order taken, NASA expects the retrieval process to take another six hours.

As a result, a press conference planned at 1 p.m. EST to discuss preliminary results has been delayed until at least 4 p.m. to give scientists more time to analyze images and data from a dust collector.

IMAGE: First early approach image of comet Tempel 1 from NASA's Stardust-NExT flyby. Credit: NASA JPL

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