Stardust to comet: Would you be my Valentine?

Artist's view of Comet Tempel 1 showing the comet's 3.7-mile-wide icy nucleus. The hazy atmosphere around the comet is made of materials vaporized by sunlight from its surface and expelled from cracks leading to fresh ice below the crust. Credit: NASA/ESA

NASA’s Stardust-NExT (New Exploration of Tempel) spacecraft has a date on Valentine’s Day with Comet Tempel 1. While it won’t be carrying a box of chocolates, the craft will pay homage to the comet by snapping 72 high resolution photos as it flies by at 22,400 mph only 124 miles above its surface.

The 820-lb impactor released by the Deep Impact probe in 2005 struck Comet Tempel 1 at a speed of 22,800 mph, creating a brilliant flash of light plumes of dusty debris. Credit: NASA/ESA/JPL-Caltech/UMD

Stardust is the second spacecraft to visit Comet Tempel 1. The first was NASA’s Deep Impact probe in 2005, which dropped an 820-lb. metal projectile onto the comet’s surface and photographed the resulting flash of impact. Deep Impact was later re-purposed and sent on to Comet Hartley 2 ,where it took spectacular photos last year of fluffy snowballs shooting out of fissures in the comet’s crust.

Stardust was originally sent out to photograph the surface and collect dust samples from the atmosphere of Comet Wild 2 in 2004. The precious particles were later returned to Earth in a science canister that landed in the Utah desert. Realizing there was still life in the old probe, NASA mission planners redirected it to Comet Tempel 1, the first comet to be visited by two spacecraft.

Size comparison of Comets Tempel 1 (3.7 miles) and Hartley 2 (.75 miles). Both comets are composed of a mix of ice and dust. Credit: NASA/ESA

Comets are volatile creatures. They spew dust, water vapor and other materials into space as they’re heated by the sun. Some of that material is literally blown back by the sunlight to form a tail; the remainder forms a misty, temporary atmosphere around the comet’s icy nucleus.

Scientists hope to see changes in the surface layers of Tempel 1  since it was last photographed up close six years ago. They’d also like to get a look at the crater produced by the impact of that projectile. Dust and debris from the blast obscured it from view at the time.

Pancake-layers and a possible powdery flow are among the surface features of interest highlighted in this July 4, 2005, Deep Impact photo of Comet Tempel 1. Credit: NASA

Who knows what we’ll discover. Take a look at those “pancake layers” in the closeup photo (left) of Tempel 1 – mighty peculiar for a small body like a comet. On Earth we have layers of sedimentary rock created through the action of flowing water and winds. Is icy material somehow flowing on the comet or is their another cause?

“One idea is that two protocometary bodies collided at low speeds and smushed together to form something like a stack of flapjacks,” says Pete Shultz, Stardust-NExT co-investigator.

Comet pancakes … hmmm. That gives me an idea for Valentine’s Day. Stay with us in the coming week for the latest on the Stardust NExT mission.

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About astrobob

My name is Bob King and I work at the Duluth News Tribune in Duluth, Minn. as a photographer and photo editor. I'm also an amateur astronomer and have been keen on the sky since age 11. My modest credentials include membership in the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) where I'm a regular contributor, International Meteorite Collectors Assn. and Arrowhead Astronomical Society. I also teach community education astronomy classes at our local planetarium.

6 thoughts on “Stardust to comet: Would you be my Valentine?

  1. Will there be any chance for me to see any of the debris that it produces- showers in the Northeast tonight 2-14-11? Always love a good show!

    • Hi Karen,
      Thanks for asking. No debris will be seen because the comet is far from Earth. The space probe may see some though! For us to see comet dust burning up as meteors, Earth has to cross through the comet’s path and that won’t happen anytime soon.

    • Hi Russell,
      Tempel 1 is currently in Sagittarius and too near the sun, faint and low in the sky to see from mid-northern latitudes. Observers in the southern latitudes with a moderate to large scope might be able to see it as a faint bit of fuzz.

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