NASA’s spacecraft Stardust-NexT is preparing for a date on Valentine’s Day with comet Tempel 1 at 11:37 p.m. EST.
The mission will enable scientists to study the changes that occurred on the comet’s surface after it orbited the Sun. Data from the mission will provide important new information on how Jupiter-family comets evolved and formed.
"Every day we are getting closer and closer and more and more excited about answering some fundamental questions about comets. 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,” said Joe Veverka, Stardust-NExT principal investigator at Cornell University.
Stardust-NExT will be almost on the exact opposite side of the solar system at the said time and will take 72 images and store them in an on board computer.
Images are expected to be available at approximately 4:30 a.m. EST.
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. In January 2007, NASA re-christened the mission Stardust-NExT and began a four-and-a-half year journey to comet Tempel 1.
"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,” said Tim Larson, project manager for Stardust-NExT at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif.
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.