An aging NASA spacecraft completed a Valentine's night pass by a fast moving comet in the hopes of learning more about the icy rock by studying it's nucleus.
The Stardust-NExT (New Exploration of Tempel) spacecraft flew to within 112 miles of comet Tempel 1 on Monday at about 11:58 pm EST.
In a deep space ballet 208.8 million miles from earth, Stardust both scientifically scanned and photographed Tempel 1 during a thirty minute closest approach period.
The first of the images were received at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Pasadena, Calif. three hours following the close approach.
The twelve year old spacecraft's aging instruments include a hard drive which only supports 720 MB of storage, and a black and white camera which was made in the 1970's.
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.
As Stardust raced 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 and the Dust Flux Monitor were turned on moments prior to the encounter. The analyzer studied the masses of ions from the dust particles which surround the comet.
The nearly five mile long and three mile wide comet rotates once every forty-one hours.
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.
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.
To understand where in deep space the encounter occurred, imagine that the Sun is the center of a clock's face. The earth would be located at the 1 o'clock position while Stardust and Tempel 1 would be at the 9 o'clock position nearly 209 million miles away from earth.
The mission received an extension in late 2006 at a cost of $29 million to keep the spacecraft alive through September of this year in support of the encounter.