April 6, 2020

19.01.11: A Valentine’s Day Flyby.

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.

On the way, Stardust has explored Asteroid Annefrank, performed a gravity assist flyby of the Earth in 2009, and has been appointed the new name of Stardust NExT: New Exploration of comet Tempel-1. And on February 14th of this year, Stardust NExT will pass the nucleus of comet Tempel 1 to survey the effects of the Deep Impact mission which hurled an 820 lb. impactor at the nucleus in 2005.

Just what do researchers expect to see? Keep in mind that Deep Impact didn’t get a full 360° coverage of the nucleus; Tempel 1 displayed one of the most varied terrains in the solar system, showing evidence of flows, scarps, and out-gassing. Researchers remain optimistic that evidence of Deep Impact’s “visit” will be seen, and are curious to see the changes that 5 years have brought to the surface of the icy worldlet.

Comet Tempel 1 passed opposition last year and has recently passed perihelion of 1.5 AU on January 12th, and an international effort to monitor Tempel 1 has led it to become one of the most well studied comets.

Deep Impact was also re-designated as EPOXI, or the Extrasolar Planet Observation and Deep Impact Extended Investigation for a flyby of Comet Hartley 2 in November of 2010. It has also participated in EPOCh, the Extrasolar Planet Observation and Characterization investigation, which has looked both at planets known to orbit distant stars and at our own Earth, to give astronomers an idea how our own planet would look to far-off eyes.

Do keep an eye on this space for updates as the Stardust NExT mission unfolds… & the study of asteroids and comets is only getting started this decade, as the Dawn mission heads to Vesta the summer; just what will these icy bodies tell us about the origins of the solar system? What are they made of, and how difficult would it be to send a manned mission to one, or move one “out of harms way”? All big questions, indeed; keep an eye on Stardust NExT in February!


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