Spacecraft returns images of man-made crater on comet

19:25, February 16, 2011      

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NASA's Stardust spacecraft has sent back new images of a comet showing a crater resulting from the 2005 Deep Impact mission, it was announced on Tuesday.

The images also showed that the comet has a fragile and weak nucleus, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) said.

"We see a crater with a small mound in the center, and it appears that some of the ejecta went up and came right back down," said Pete Schultz of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. "This tells us this cometary nucleus is fragile and weak based on how subdued the crater is we see today."

The spacecraft made its closest approach to comet Tempel 1 on Monday at 8:40 p.m., Pacific Standard Time, at a distance of about 111 miles (117.6 km), according to JPL, Pasadena, Los Angeles.

The spacecraft took 72 high-resolution images of the comet and also accumulated 468 kilobytes of data about the dust in its coma -- the cloud that is a comet's atmosphere, JPL said in a news release.

The craft is on its second mission of exploration called Stardust-NExT, having completed its prime mission collecting cometary particles and returning them to Earth in 2006.

The Stardust-NExT mission-met goals included observing surface features that changed in areas previously seen during the 2005 Deep Impact mission; imaging new terrain; and viewing the crater generated when the 2005 mission propelled an impactor at the comet, JPL said.

"We saw a lot of new things that we didn't expect, and we'll be working hard to figure out what Tempel 1 is trying to tell us," said Stardust-NExT principal investigator Joe Veverka, of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

Several of the images provide "tantalizing clues" to the result of the Deep Impact mission's collision with Tempel 1, according to JPL.

Don Brownlee, a Stardust-NExT co-investigator from the University of Washington in Seattle, said data "indicate Stardust went through something similar to a B-17 bomber flying through flak in World War II."

"Instead of having a little stream of uniform particles coming out, they apparently came out in chunks and crumbled."

The spacecraft will continue to look at its latest cometary obsession from afar.

"This spacecraft has logged over 3.5 billion miles (5.6 billion km) since launch, and while its last close encounter is complete, its mission of discovery is not," said Tim Larson, Stardust-NExT project manager at JPL. "We'll continue imaging the comet as long as the science team can gain useful information, and then Stardust will get its well-deserved rest."

Stardust-NExT is a low-cost mission that is expanding the investigation of comet Tempel 1 initiated by the Deep Impact spacecraft. The mission is managed by JPL for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver built the spacecraft and manages day-to-day mission operations.

Source: Xinhua
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