AS OF TODAY, February 15 at 4:21am Sydney time (Feb 14, at 9:21am US PST or 12:21pm US EST), NASA’s Stardust-NExT mission spacecraft was within 402,336 kilometres of its quarry, comet Tempel 1, which it will fly by today.
The spacecraft is cutting the distance with the comet at a rate of about 10.9 kilometres per second (38,000 kph).
The flyby of Tempel 1 will give scientists an opportunity to look for changes on the comet’s surface since it was visited by NASA’s Deep Impact spacecraft in July 2005. Since then, Tempel 1 has completed one orbit of the Sun, and scientists are looking forward to discovering any differences in the comet.
The closest approach is expected tonight at approximately 3:40pm Sydney time (8:40pm US PST or 11:40pm US EST).
A brief encounter
During the encounter phase, the spacecraft will carry out many important milestones in short order and automatically, as the spacecraft is too far away to receive timely updates from Earth.
These milestones include turning the spacecraft to point its protective shields between it and the anticipated direction from which cometary particles would approach.
Another milestone will occur at about four minutes to closest approach, when the spacecraft will begin science imaging of the comet’s nucleus.
The nominal imaging sequence will run for about eight minutes. The spacecraft’s onboard memory is limited to 72 high-resolution images, so the imaging will be most closely spaced around the time of closest approach for best-resolution coverage of Tempel 1’s nucleus.
At the time of closest encounter, the spacecraft is expected to be approximately 200 kilometres from the comet’s nucleus.
The mission team expects to begin receiving images on the ground starting at around 7pm Sydney time (midnight US PST or 3:00am on Feb. 15 US EST). Transmission of each image will take about 15 minutes.
It will take about 10 hours to complete the transmission of all images and science data aboard the spacecraft.
Watch the live coverage
Live coverage on NASA TV and via the Internet begins at 3:30pm Sydney time (Feb. 14 at 8:30pm US PST or 11:30pm US EST) from mission control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Coverage also will include segments from the Lockheed Martin Space System’s mission support area in Denver.
For NASA TV streaming video, scheduling and downlink information, visit http://www.nasa.gov/ntv
The live coverage and news conference will also be carried on one of JPL’s Ustream channels. During events, viewers can take part in a real-time chat and submit questions to the Stardust-NExT team at: http://www.ustream.tv/user/NASAJPL2
During its 12 years in space, Stardust became the first spacecraft to collect samples of a comet (Wild 2 in 2004), which were delivered to Earth in 2006 for study.
The Stardust-NExT mission is managed by JPL for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver built the spacecraft and manages day-to-day mission operations.
Adapted from information issued by NASA / JPL. Images courtesy NASA / JPL-Caltech / Cornell / LMSS.
Get SpaceInfo.com.au daily updates by RSS or email! Click the RSS Feed link at the top right-hand corner of this page, and then save the RSS Feed page to your bookmarks. Or, enter your email address (privacy assured) and we’ll send you daily updates. Or follow us on Twitter, @spaceinfo_oz