NASA Stardust craft to make Valentine's night pass by comet

(Cape Canaveral, FL) — A NASA spacecraft will make a Valentine’s night pass by a fast moving comet in the hopes of learning more about the icy rock.

The Stardust-NExT (New Exploration of Tempel) spacecraft is on a course to fly very close to the comet Tempel 1 on Monday at about 11:37 pm EST.

“Stardust-NExT is a mission to reuse the Stardust spacecraft to further the exploration of comet Tempel 1,” principle investigator Joe Veverka explained.

“Temple 1 was the target of Deep Impact. Deep Impact discovered that this is a most interesting comet,” Veverka added. “We want to see more of the surface and we also want to see what changes have occurred since Deep Impact went there five years ago.”

In a deep space ballet 209 million miles or 2.25 AU from earth, Stardust will both scientifically scan and photograph Tempel 1.

The two space objects are expected to fly to within 124 miles apart.

The mission’s project manager, Tim Larson, explained, “We want to extend the mapping and observation of (Tempel’s) nucleus to see new areas of the nucleus we hadn’t seen before, so it will help complete the mapping of the nucleus of this comet. And, then if possible, we would like to be able to image a crater that was left behind” from the Deep Impact.

Comets are mostly icy chunks of rock material which are locked in an elliptical orbit around the Sun. As the comet nears the Sun, a white fuzzy atmosphere envelopes around the icy rock and forms a tail region due to solar radiation.

There are about 4,000 known comets, and Tempel 1 orbits past the Sun once every 5 1/2-years, and out to a region between Mars and Jupiter.

As Stardust races near the comet at 24,300 miles per hour, the craft’s science and navigation instruments will be activated.

The Comet and Interstellar Dust Analyzer instrument will be turned on at about 8:30 pm, and run until about 2:30 am Tuesday morning. This analyzer will study the masses of ions from the dust particles which surround the comet.

The Dust Flux Monitor will be turned on at about 11:16 pm, and will study the make up and size of dust originating from Tempel 1′s coma.

The nearly five mile long and three mile wide comet rotates once every forty-one hours.

The Stardust mission has had a very storied career since it’s February 1999 launch aboard a Delta II rocket from Cape Canaveral.

In 2002, the craft flew by the Annefrank asteroid making observations and taking thousands of images. Over a year later, the craft flew by it’s main target, comet Wild 2.

A section of Stardust known as the sample material capsule collected dust and particles from Wild 2.

In January 2006, the sample material capsule returned to earth, landing in Utah.

The mission was then extended in late 2006 at a cost of $29 million to keep the spacecraft alive through September of this year.