An artists’ impression of Stardust NExT at comet Temple 1.
NASA engineers directed the Stardust spacecraft to fire its rockets briefly on the of 17th of February, putting it on course for a new mission; a flyby of comet Tempel 1 February 14th of next year. If that comet sounds familiar, it should be; Tempel 1 was smacked by an impactor released from the Deep Impact space probe in 2005. The pass will allow scientists to see how the impact crater has evolved, as well as mark the first mission to re-visit a comet. Launched on February 7th, 1999, Stardust also returned a first ever sample of a comet. This sample has been the subject of much scrutiny by Earth-bound scientists, including that favorite obsessive/compulsive-creating crowd-sourcing project, Stardust@home. Hey, I’m still in the top 100, last time I checked… NASA has also rechristened the spacecraft as Stardust NExT, or the New Exploration of Tempel. Not only will next years’ passage provide close-ups of the nucleus, but expect to see high resolution images of the coma and key insight into just how these Jupiter-class family of comets formed and evolved.