Stardust Probe En Route to Comet Tempel 1 Encounter

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NASA’s Stardust-Next spacecraft is en route to make a Feb. 14 flyby of comet Tempel 1.

Launched in 1999, the Stardust spacecraft flew past comet Wild 2 in January 2004, capturing particles from the comet’s tail. Two years later, Stardust dropped its sample-carrying capsule onto the Utah desert. In 2007, NASA approved the Stardust-Next mission, sending the spacecraft on its way to Tempel 1, a comet last visited in July 2005 by NASA’s Deep Impact mission.

While mission officials hope the craft will obtain images of the crater that was made when Deep Impact’s probe slammed into the comet in 2005, this is considered a secondary objective. At the time, the stirred-up debris obscured the view of any newly formed feature.

Allan Cheuvront, the Stardust-Next program manager at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver, said he is confident the 12-year-old spacecraft will accomplish its new mission. “We’ll get the images and we’ll provide brand-new science,” he said. “This has been a remarkable, robust spacecraft. It has done everything we’ve asked it to do and more.”

On encounter day, Lockheed Martin’s mission control center will be staffed by a 15-person team. Stardust-Next is expected to pass within 200 kilometers of Tempel 1, taking some 72 images during a planned five-minute encounter.

Cheuvront said there is no guarantee Stardust-Next will spot the Deep Impact crater.

“Scientists don’t understand the rotation mechanism of the comet, why it changes, what causes it to change, and how to predict that,” he said. “We did everything we can to put ourselves in a position to get a picture of the crater. But there are so many unknowns. … We have to be lucky.”