Washington: In yet another incident of cosmic togetherness, NASA``s Stardust spacecraft would be redirected to pass within 200 kilometers of comet Tempel 1 on the Valentine``s Day.
In the heat of the moment, astronomers hope, Tempel 1 will be cajoled into yielding a few more clues about her background. And Stardust, equipped with imaging and dust composition analysis instruments, will relay those clues to Earth.
The Valentine``s Day flyby could yield a wealth of new information about Tempel 1``s structure and composition and how its features change with every passage around the Sun, said Joe Veverka, principal investigator for Stardust-NExT, the NASA mission orchestrating the rendezvous.
Stardust could also catch a glimpse of the crater that formed when a probe from Deep Impact crashed into Tempel 1``s surface six years ago.
"That impact threw up so much ejecta that Deep Impact never saw the crater. So it could never see how big the crater is and what [it] tells us about the mechanical properties of the surface," said Veverka.
That information is vital for any future mission that involves landing a spacecraft on the surface of a comet, he said.
And finally, astronomers hope the rendezvous will provide a closer look at some of the surface features Deep Impact saw when it zoomed by in 2005. Layered terrain, for example, could contain information about how comet nuclei were formed; and smooth flows hint at some internal processes that could be working their way up to change the surface.
Stardust caught its first glimpse of Tempel 1 on Jan 26 and will keep its eye on the comet as it approaches, collecting data to help mission navigators refine its trajectory.
And on Valentine``s Day, as Earthbound lovers gaze into each other``s eyes, the two orbiting bodies will meet, about 120 miles apart. As they pass, Stardust will test the density and composition of the dust surrounding the comet and snap 72 high-resolution images.