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.