Monday, February 14, 2011

Stardust-NExT nears comet flyby

NASA's Stardust spacecraft is closing in on its Valentine's Day date with comet Tempel 1.

More than 200 million miles from Earth, the spacecraft is expected to make its closest approach to the comet around 11:38 p.m. EST, at a distance of about 120 miles. Confirmation isn't expected at 11:58 p.m.

Tempel 1 is the comet NASA's Deep Impact mission drilled with an impactor on July 4, 2005.

Launched in 1999 from Cape Canaveral, Stardust is the spacecraft that flew through the trail of the comet Wild 2 (pronounced Vilt 2) in 2004. It collected a dust sample that was fired back to Earth in 2006, becoming the first extraterrestrial material returned to Earth from beyond the moon.

Deep Impact last November followed up with a flyby of comet Hartley 2. Stardust for several years has been plotting a return look at Tempel 1, a $29 million mission dubbed Stardust-NExT (New Exploration of Tempel 1).

It will be a first chance for scientists to see up close how an orbit around the sun has changed a comet's surface. They also hope to get a good look at the crater Deep Impact made, though it might be rotated out of view.

You can watch live NASA TV coverage of the encounter here by clicking on the NASA TV image at right, or tune into a webcast here.

The first of the 72 high resolution images Stardust will take during the flyby is expected to return around 3 a.m. Eastern. The images will arrive about every 15 minutes.

Looking for a late Valentine's card for a loved one? Check out the electronic, comet-themed options here.

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