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Recycled spacecraft to revisit comet

An artist's impression of Stardust NExT approaching comet Tempel 1.

The Stardust NExT spacecraft will fly past comet Tempel 1 on February 15 (Sydney time) at a distance of only 200 kilometres.

NASA’S STARDUST NEXT SPACECRAFT is nearing a celestial date with comet Tempel 1 at approximately 3:37pm on February 15, Sydney time (11:37pm US EST on Feb 14). The mission will enable scientists for the first time to look for changes on a comet’s surface that occurred following an orbit around the Sun.

The Stardust-NExT, or New Exploration of Tempel, spacecraft will take high-resolution images during the encounter, and attempt to measure the composition, distribution, and flux of dust emitted into the coma…the cloud of material surrounding the comet’s core.

Data from the mission will provide important new information on how certain types of comets evolved and formed.

The mission will expand the investigation of the comet initiated by NASA’s Deep Impact mission. In July 2005, the Deep Impact spacecraft sent an impactor into the surface of Tempel 1 to study its composition. The Stardust spacecraft may capture an image of the crater formed by the impactor. This would be a bonus to the huge amount of data that mission scientists expect to obtain.

Here’s a short video of the result of Deep Impact’s impactor hitting Tempel 1:

“Every day we are getting closer and closer and more and more excited about answering some fundamental questions about comets,” said Joe Veverka, Stardust-NExT principal investigator at Cornell University.

“Going back for another look at Tempel 1 will provide new insights on how comets work and how they were put together four-and-a-half billion years ago.”

Close encounter of the comet kind

At approximately 336 million kilometres away from Earth, Stardust-NExT will be almost on the exact opposite side of the Solar System at the time of the encounter. (As of January 20, the spacecraft was approximately 24.6 million kilometres away from its encounter.) During the flyby, the spacecraft will take 72 images and store them in an onboard computer.

Initial raw images from the flyby will be sent to Earth for processing that will begin at approximately 7:00pm Sydney time on February 15. Images are expected to be made public 90 minutes later.

Since 2007, Stardust-NExT executed eight flight path correction manoeuvres, logged four circuits around the Sun and used one Earth gravity assist to meet up with Tempel 1.

Tempel 1 impact blast

The blast produced when an impactor released by the Deep Impact spacecraft, hit comet Tempel 1 in 2005. Scientist's hope Stardust NExT will give them a close-up look at the blast crater.

Another three manoeuvres are planned to refine the spacecraft’s path to the comet. Tempel 1’s orbit takes it as close in to the Sun as the orbit of Mars and almost as far away as the orbit of Jupiter. The spacecraft is expected to fly past the nearly 6-kilometre-wide comet at a distance of approximately 200 kilometres.

Running on empty

In 2004, Stardust became the first mission to collect particles directly from comet Wild 2, as well as interstellar dust. Samples were returned in 2006 for study via a capsule that detached from the spacecraft and parachuted to the ground southwest of Salt Lake City.

Mission controllers placed the still viable Stardust spacecraft on a trajectory that could potentially reuse the system if a target of opportunity presented itself.

In January 2007, NASA re-christened the mission Stardust-NExT and began a four-and-a-half year journey to comet Tempel 1.

“You could say our spacecraft is a seasoned veteran of cometary campaigns,” said Tim Larson, project manager for Stardust-NExT at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“It’s been half-way to Jupiter, executed picture-perfect flybys of an asteroid and a comet, collected cometary material for return to Earth, then headed back out into the void again, where we asked it to go head-to-head with a second comet nucleus.”

The mission team expects this fly-by to write the final chapter of the spacecraft’s success-filled story. The spacecraft is nearly out of fuel as it approaches 12 years of space travel, logging almost 6 billion kilometres since launch in 1999.

This fly-by and planned post-encounter imaging are expected to consume the remaining fuel.

Adapted from information issued by NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

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