Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Stardust-NExT flirts with comet Tempel 1

NASA's Stardust-NExT mission has completed its Valentine's Day dance with comet Tempel 1.

Just before midnight Monday, NASA and Lockheed Martin Corp. mission teams received confirmation that the 12-year-old Stardust spacecraft was pointed properly at the comet's four-mile wide nucleus and had begun taking the first of 72 high-resolution science pictures.

The teams applauded at 12:05 a.m. EST Tuesday after confirmation that all 72 images had been taken as the comet passed, taking some particle hits along the way.

"Apparently everything has just went perfectly," said Joe Ververka, the mission's excited principal investigator, from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. "We did our homework. We made sure we arrived at the comet at just the right time."

Stardust flew within 112 miles of the comet, slightly closer than planned, flying at a relative speed of nearly 7 mph. It's expected to beam back its first pictures around 3 a.m. EST, one every 15 minutes. A set of five are deemed the most "special," close-up images.

The pictures will be the first close-up images of Tempel 1 since NASA's Deep Impact mission flew by in 2005 and hit it with an impactor, creating a crater that might be visbile in the images to come.

"We want to see how much has changed in the last five years," said Ververka. "We'll find out in a few hours."

The images from Stardust, which was designed to collect dust from the comet Wild 2 in 2004, are not expected to be very crisp. They were taken with a navigation camera less sophisticated than Deep Impact's cameras. But scientists think they'll be good enough to make out key features and draw comparrisons with older images.

No comments: