April 2, 2020

10.02.11: A Valentine’s Day Rendezvous.

There. Out there. That faint moving smudge in the image above is about to become the target of a cometary flyby of historic proportions next week.

Early in January, we blogged about StardustNExT, the return mission to comet Tempel 1 which was smacked by an impactor dispatched by NASA’s Deep Impact probe in 2005. A few days ago, Stardust NExT marked 12 years in space by performing an engine burn that will put it on the path for a 124 mile flyby of the comet on February 14th. The above set of images was taken on January 19th about 16.3 million miles distant. To give you some idea how fast StardustNExT is moving, it’s closing in on comet Tempel 1 at a rate of about 590,000 miles a day… that’s from Earth to our moon in less than twelve hours! StardustNExT has had a storied history since its launch in 1999. It has performed the first sample return from a comet (Wild 2) and now will conduct the first ever follow up flyby of a previously explored cometary body. Needless to say, the Monday night passage will be a frenzy of activity at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and NASA plans to host live coverage of the encounter starting at 08:30 PM PST February 14th with a follow up media briefing Tuesday the 15th at 10:00 AM PST. Studies hope to show how cometary nuclei evolve over time and scientists look to get a better view of  Tempel 1’s varied terrain. Just how different will this battered and alien worldlet look during next week’s flyby? Stay tuned for more pics!


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