NASA Spacecraft Prepares For Valentine's Day Comet Rendezvous

WASHINGTON -- NASA's Stardust-NExT spacecraft is nearing a celestial date with comet Tempel 1 at approximately 11:37 p.m. EST, on Feb. 14. The mission will allow scientists for the first time to look for changes on a comet's surface that occurred following an orbit around the sun.

The Stardust-NExT, or New Exploration of Tempel, spacecraft will take high-resolution images during the encounter, and attempt to measure the composition, distribution, and flux of dust emitted into the coma, or material surrounding the comet's nucleus. Data from the mission will provide important new information on how Jupiter-family comets evolved and formed.

The mission will expand the investigation of the comet initiated by
NASA's Deep Impact mission. In July 2005, the Deep Impact spacecraft
delivered an impactor to the comet's surface to study its
composition. The Stardust spacecraft may capture an image of the
crater created by the impactor. This would be an added bonus to the
huge amount of data that mission scientists expect to obtain.

"Every day we are getting closer and closer and more and more excited
about answering some fundamental questions about comets," said Joe
Veverka, Stardust-NExT principal investigator at Cornell University.
"Going back for another look at Tempel 1 will provide new insights on
how comets work and how they were put together four-and-a-half
billion years ago."

At approximately 209 million miles away from Earth, Stardust-NExT will
be almost on the exact opposite side of the solar system at the time
of the encounter. During the flyby, the spacecraft will take 72
images and store them in an on board computer.

Initial raw images from the flyby will be sent to Earth for processing
that will begin at approximately 3 a.m. EST on Feb. 15. Images are
expected to be available at approximately 4:30 a.m. EST.

As of today, the spacecraft is approximately 15.3 million miles away
from its encounter. Since 2007, Stardust-NExT executed eight flight
path correction maneuvers, logged four circuits around the sun and
used one Earth gravity assist to meet up with Tempel 1.

Another three maneuvers are planned to refine the spacecraft's path to
the comet. Tempel 1's orbit takes it as close in to the sun as the
orbit of Mars and almost as far away as the orbit of Jupiter. The
spacecraft is expected to fly past the 3.7 mile-wide comet at a
distance of approximately 124 miles.

In 2004, the Stardust mission became the first to collect particles
directly from comet Wild 2, as well as interstellar dust. Samples
were returned in 2006 for study via a capsule that detached from the
spacecraft and parachuted to the ground southwest of Salt Lake City.

Mission controllers placed the still viable Stardust spacecraft on a
trajectory that could potentially reuse the flight system if a target
of opportunity presented itself. In January 2007, NASA re-christened
the mission Stardust-NExT and began a four-and-a-half year journey to
comet Tempel 1.

"You could say our spacecraft is a seasoned veteran of cometary
campaigns," said Tim Larson, project manager for Stardust-NExT at
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. "It's been
half-way to Jupiter, executed picture-perfect flybys of an asteroid
and a comet, collected cometary material for return to Earth, then
headed back out into the void again, where we asked it to go
head-to-head with a second comet nucleus."

The mission team expects this flyby to write the final chapter of the
spacecraft's success-filled story. The spacecraft is nearly out of
fuel as it approaches 12 years of space travel, logging almost 3.7
billion miles since launch in 1999. This flyby and planned
post-encounter imaging are expected to consume the remaining fuel.

JPL manages mission for the agency's Science Mission Directorate in
Washington. Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver built the
spacecraft and manages day-to-day mission operations.

For more information about the Stardust-NExt mission, visit:


Source: NASA

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