February 8, 2011

NASA Mission Launches, Will Report Changes in Comet

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For many astronomers, comets are among the most fascinating bodies that exist in the solar system. In recent years, scientists have begun to take a more active approach to investigating comets, launching multiple NASA missions designed specifically for data collection from orbiting comets. Following the successful Deep Impact mission to Comet Tempel 1 in 2005, NASA is preparing to launch a follow-up mission –– the Stardust-NExt –– to gather additional data on the comet in February 2011.In 2004, the Stardust mission became NASA’s first spacecraft to reach and gather data on a comet, Comet Wild 2. Stardust flew within 236 kilometers, or 147 miles, of the comet and photographed the comet at a range of 251 kilometers, or 156 miles, of its nucleus. In addition to taking photographs, Stardust’s mission involved collecting particles from the comet and its surroundings and bringing them to Earth for scientific analysis. Following Stardust, mission Deep Impact, which consisted of a “fly-by” spacecraft and an impactor, was released into space in 2005. Deep Impact’s mission involved colliding with Comet Tempel 1, and collecting data to return to Earth. Though Deep Impact’s impactor was vaporized during the collision, the device detected large amounts of fine powdery material from underneath the comet’s surface. Deep Impact’s two cameras also captured the composition of the comet in detail, and even captured an image of the comet’s nucleus. In the upcoming Stardust-NExT mission this February, the same space craft that journeyed to Comet Wild 2 will set out to explore Comet Tempel 1. Developed by Lockheed Martin Astronautics in Denver, Colorado, the Stardust-NExT aircraft is very lightweight and contains a camera that will detect the comet’s nucleus about 60 days before encounter. The camera will then continuously photograph the comet until impact. The camera will continue to photograph the nucleus during and after the encounter, mainly to detect coma, or after impact, activity. The record breaking Stardust- NExT will be the first ever follow up mission to a comet.In 2006, Prof. Joseph Veverka, astronomy, became the principal investigator for the Stardust- NExT Mission. Ververka was also the principle investigator for the Deep Impact Mission and has been studying comets and asteroids for approximately forty years at Cornell.“The focus of this mission is to take images to see how much the comet has changed in the last five years since it’s been around the sun.” Veverka said. Another important objective of the mission is to take images of the crater created by Deep Impact in 2005.  This aspect is significant since, “That would tell us how strong the surface of the comet is, which is important if later missions are planned with the objective of landing another comet to bring back samples.” Although imaging is the main objective of this mission, the Stardust is equipped with dust instruments, which will collect dust that comes off the comet.  These samples can be used to measure the amount of dust present, the different particle sizes and composition of the dust. “The reason why people are interested in comets is because we know that comets contain very complicated molecules that formed early in the solar system,” Ververka said. He continued to say, “These kinds of molecules were brought to Earth when the planet was forming and they could have led to the origin of life, so we are really interested in knowing what is the stuff like.”Though such samples are difficult to obtain and it will be 10-20 years before a spacecraft is capable of recovering samples from the comet itself and not from the interstellar dust. “The Stardust is not going to provide these samples but it is an important step towards understating the different phenomena occurring in the universe because it will tell us how easy it is to land on a comet, how easy it is to dig out a sample and bring it back,” said Veverka. The closest point of the comet will occur on Valentine’s Day at 11:30 p.m., where the mission control is located. According to Veverka, due to the distance of the comet from Earth, it will take approximately two hours to start playing back the images collected by the Stardust NExT. The spacecraft and the comet are currently on the other side of the solar system at about the same distance of Mars to the Sun, this causes data to be played at a relative slow rate.

Original Author: Yusnier Sonora Lopez