May 31, 2020

15.02.11: New Views of Comet Tempel 1 Courtesy of StardustNExT.

The re-designated StardustNExT spacecraft performed another first this Valentine’s Day, completing the first ever follow-up encounter of comet Tempel 1.

The images show a stunning approach culminating in a pass from a crescent through gibbous phase as the probe approached the comet at 10.9 kilometers per second. Closest approach was 200 kilometers at 04:42 UTC early on the 15th and the probe nabbed a series of 30 frames that has already be stitched together into a pretty nifty animation. The images above show a new face to the terrain of this enigmatic object with familiar craters but also a varied terrain of smooth areas laced with fault scarps… Comet Tempel 1 has obviously been subject to extensive periods of recent resurfacing in this armchair observer’s opinion.

Of course the big question on everybody’s mind is: where’s THE crater? Deep Impact released a 816 lb impactor which struck the comet on July 4th, 2005 which presumably left a pretty decent sized scar. As these words go to blog, legions of eagle-eyed astronomers professional and amateur are scouring the images for a comparison correlation. Keep in mind, we’re seeing Tempel 1 at a different vantage point, and as any lunar observer will tell you, regions of an alien surface can look radically different due to light and illumination angle.  NASA plans a news conference coming right up at 3:30 PM live this afternoon on NASA TV to discuss preliminary results.

And the future of StardustNExT? With its remaining fuel exhausted, the gallant spacecraft will stay in an elongated heliocentric orbit looping near 1 to 1.5 A.U. But what a rich bonanza of science the 12 year mission has been; Two comets, one asteroid (Annefrank), one sample return, and one followup!


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