On Valentine’s Day night, JPL employees forfeited any plans for romance in order to taste the fruits of a single celestial encounter. At a little before 9 p.m. Monday, NASA’s Stardust-NExT shuttle came within 125 miles of Tempel 1, a comet scientists have been tracking for years. The meeting, cheekily billed by NASA as “A Date with a Comet,” was more than five years, and hundreds of research hours, in the making.
This “date” brings with it a scientific first — until now, no comet has ever been visited more than once. In 2005, the vessel Deep Impact rendezvoused with the comet for the purpose of creating an impact crater that would reveal some of the comet’s sub-surface components. An 800-pound copper projectile successfully reached the surface, driving up ice particles and dust flecks that were observed and recorded by the craft.
Since that impact event, Tempel 1 has completed a five-year revolution around the sun. Its Valentine’s Day encounter with Stardust-NExT (New Exploration of Tempel 1) will allow researchers to see what changes have occurred since its last perihelion, or the orbital point closest to the sun.