Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Stardust meets Comet Tempel-1

StarDust-Next, formerly Stardust.

This is a mission where we got our money's worth. The Stardust-Next mission successfully placed the Stardust explorer craft through a close fly-by of comet Tempel 1 lat last night. The craft closed to its closest approach of 112 miles. I stayed up a bit late to watch the excitement at JPL mission control as the events occurred. Well, excitement for space geeks, at least. And I am one for sure.

The Stardust spacecraft has been out there for about 12 years. Its original successful mission was to pass near comet Wild 2 back in 2004, collect a sample of the dust surrounding the comet, and return the sample to Earth. This mission is described at this link: http://stardustnext.jpl.nasa.gov/mission/behind_mission.html

One of the cool events of that mission was to watch the sample capsule land dangerously in the desert near Salt Lake City UT.

With the mission concluded, NASA/JPL planned to give the craft a second, new mission. Retasking this spacecraft would cost millions less than creating a new spacecraft and launching it. Engineers discovered they had just enough propellant and life left in Stardust to send it on an exciting mission to comet Tempel 1.

Tempel 1 had been visited before. In 2005, the space probe Deep Impact flew through the comet dust cloud and crashed an impactor into its surface, blasting out more dust particles which could be analyzed by instruments. With Stardust, explorers could revisit the comet and examine the surface details for changes that occurred during the 5 year gap. Stardust was renamed Stardust-Next, and sent off on its second voyage of exploration.

Artist image of the approach to Tempel 1. Yes, a bit dramatic. Who cares? Very nice.

Scientists are a fairly reserved group of people when it comes to showing their emotions, and mission controllers are even more cool under pressure. But you could sense the excitement growing as the spacecraft reached closest approach. There were a couple of tense moments waiting to see if the spacecraft would encounter any problems transmitting data but all went as planned. One exciting moment occurred when it was discovered that the spacecraft had taken a hit from a tiny piece of the comet, enough to need a slight adjustment in thruster control. Thankfully not damaging enough to end the mission.

The big question now is whether the Deep Impact crater will have been visible and sunlit during the photo-fly-by, and if the images will capture data showing change on the surface. The pictures are all being downloaded today, and soon we'll have some magnificent images to see. Until then, here's one of the first pictures from the approach. All images are NASA/JPL and associates.

1,530 miles and closing...

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