NASA Probe to Have Valentine's Day Rendezvous with Comet

Published by: Andy on 20th Jan 2011 | View all blogs by Andy
comet-tempel.jpg

NASA Probe to Have Valentine's Day Rendezvous with Comet

NASA's Stardust-NExT space probe has its Valentine's Day plans set.  The probe will rendezvous with the Tempel 1 comet at 11:37 PM EST on February 14th to snap photos and collect data about the comet, which wanders around our solar system.  The probe will come as close as 124 miles to the comet.

Tempel 1 is particularly interesting to NASA scientists because another probe has previously encountered the rock.  The Deep Impact probe approached Tempel 1 in 2005, firing an 800 lb. Impactor at its surface to study its composition.  While the mission was considered a success, for the most part, the impact kicked up a dust cloud which prevented the Deep Impact from studying the crater left behind.

That's where Stardust-NExT comes in, the probe will allow scientists to finally get a good look at that crater.  But that's not all the scientists will be looking at.  Since the 2005 brush with Deep Impact, Tempel 1 has passed very close to the sun before cruising out as far as Jupiter's orbit and heading back in again.  The NASA team hopes to gain a better understanding of how a close brush with the sun shapes a comet's surface.

Tempel 1 will be the second comet Stardust-NExT has a brush with.  Back in 2004 the probe, known then simply as Stardust, passed through the coma around the Wild 2 comet capturing dust particles in a sample capsule.  The probe then returned to orbit around the Earth, dropping the sample down to the surface for retrieval.  In 2007, NASA approves a second rendezvous for the spacecraft, with Tempel 1 and sent it out again.

Scientists say the probe has already been a huge success, having exceeded expectations.  The craft has logged nearly 3.7 billion miles of space flight since launching in 1999.  Sadly, the Valentine's Day rendezvous with Tempel 1 will be the craft's last mission.  The flyby and post-encounter imaging are expected to consume all of the craft's remaining fuel.

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