NASA’s Stardust-NExT spacecraft is nearing a celestial date with comet Tempel 1 on Feb. 14. The mission will allow 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, or material surrounding the comet’s nucleus.
The mission will expand the investigation of this comet initiated by NASA’s Deep Impact mission. In July 2005, the Deep Impact spacecraft delivered an impactor to Tempel 1’s surface to study its composition. The Stardust spacecraft may capture an image of the crater created by the impactor.
“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.”
At 209 million miles away from Earth, Stardust-NExT will be almost on the exact opposite side of the solar system at the time of the encounter. During the flyby, the spacecraft will take 72 images and store them in an on-board computer.
As of now, the spacecraft is about 15 million miles from its encounter. Since 2007, Stardust-NExT has executed eight flight path correction maneuvers, logged four circuits around the Sun and used one Earth gravity assist to meet up with Tempel 1.
Another three maneuvers 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 3.7 mile-wide comet at a distance of 124 miles.
In 2004, the Stardust mission became the first to collect particles directly from a comet (comet Wild 2). These 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 then placed the still viable Stardust spacecraft on a trajectory that could potentially reuse the flight system if a target of opportunity presented itself. In January 2007, NASA re-christened the mission Stardust-NExT and sent it on 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 (JPL) in Pasadena. “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 flyby to write the final chapter of this spacecraft’s success-filled story. It is nearly out of fuel as it approaches 12 years of space travel, logging almost 3.7 billion miles since launch in 1999. This flyby and planned post-encounter imaging are expected to consume the remaining fuel.
More information about the Stardust-NExt mission: