Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Stardust-NExT spots Deep Impact crater

NASA's Stardust spacecraft successfully snapped images of the crater the Deep Impact mission made in comet Tempel 1, excited scientists announced today.

Stardust flew within 110 miles of Tempel 1 late Monday. Until images were downlinked today from the spacecraft more than 200 million miles from Earth, managers of the $29 million Stardust-NExT mission weren't sure if the comet was facing the right way to show off the crater created in 2005.

It turned out everything was aligned perfectly to both see the crater and map new terrain on Tempel 1. Check out images here.

Scientists quickly determined that the material smashed by the impactor Deep Impact deployed was weak. After kicking up in a cloud that obscured Deep Impact's view, it appears much of the material settled back where it came from.

In another section of Tempel 1, a series of pits had coalesced into one over the past five years, apparently the result of erosion as the comet passed the sun again. Those are the kind of changes scientists are looking for to learn more about how comets form and change over time.

Joe Veverka, the mission's principal investigator from Cornell University, said all the missions science objectives were achieved. It was the first time a comet had been seen close up for a second time.

Stardust, launched from Cape Canaveral in 1999, is nearly out of fuel and will be decommissioned soon.

IMAGE: The left-hand image is a composite made from images obtained by Deep Impact in July 2005. The right-hand image shows arrows identifying the rim of the crater caused by the impactor. The crater is estimated to be 150 meters (500 feet) in diameter. This image also shows a brighter mound in the center of the crater likely created when material from the impact fell back into the crater. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Maryland/Cornell

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