October 18, 2017

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.

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19.01.11: A Valentine’s Day Flyby.

The view of Comet Tempel-1 as seen from Deep impact in July 2005; this year’s visit plans to be friendlier… (Credit:NASA-JPL-Caltech-UMD).

One down, and one to go… next month, NASA intends to perform another first; the first follow up flyby of a cometary nucleus. The spacecraft is Stardust, and the comet is Tempel 1. Today’s mission briefing gave a glimpse of the action that is in store. Launched in February, 1999 Stardust has performed an array of firsts, including the first sample return from Comet Wild 2 in 2004, and one of the highest re-entry velocities ever attempted during its successful sample return in 2006. [Read more...]

09.05.10: First Re-Visit of a Comet in the Works.

(Credit: NASA/JPL).

(Credit: NASA/JPL).

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.

28.01.10: A Key Organic Compound Found in Space.

The Stardust aerogel detector. (Credit: NASA/JPL).

The Stardust aerogel detector. (Credit: NASA/JPL).


Stardusters rejoice; one of the largest citizen scientist projects has borne fruit. In 2004, NASA’s Stardust spacecraft passed through the outer envelope of comet Wild 2, allowing its sticky aerogel detectors to capture samples of gas and dust. Ever since the detectors parachuted safely to Earth on January 15, 2006, scientists, bloggers, and school kids have been pouring over the aerogel microscope scans looking for tell-tale dust tracks in a project known as Stardust@home, a vast citizen science project that might well be dubbed as the greatest science project done before bedtime.  Scientists at Goddard Space Flight Center announced late in 2009 that the molecule glycine has been detected in the aerogel detector. A key amino acid used in the construction of proteins, glycine is represented by the formula NH2CH2COOH. Scientists actually detected the molecules trapped in the foils at the rim of the detectors. Terrestrial glycine was ruled out due to the isotopic structure of the carbon atoms seen; Earth bound carbon tends to be of the Carbon 12 variety, while the glycine in the sample is the heavier Carbon 13, just what would be expected if the compound had come from the nucleus of a comet. It should be pointed out that the discovery of organic compounds is not the same as the discovery of life, but rather the key building blocks of such. This does, however, provide evidence that the raw materials to get life going may indeed be prevalent in the cosmos.