More Evidence That Comets May Have Brought Life to Earth

The idea of panspermia — that life on Earth originated from comets or asteroids bombarding our planet — is not new. But new research may have given the theory a boost. Scientists from Japan say their experiments show that early comet impacts could have caused amino acids to change into peptides, becoming the first building blocks of life. Not only would this help explain the genesis of life on Earth, but it could also have implications for life on other worlds.

Dr. Haruna Sugahara, from the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology in Yokahama, and Dr. Koichi Mimura, from Nagoya University said they conducted “shock experiments on frozen mixtures of amino acid, water ice and silicate (forsterite) at cryogenic condition (77 K),” according to their paper. “In the experiments, the frozen amino acid mixture was sealed into a capsule … a vertical propellant gun was used to [simulate] impact shock.”

They analyzed the post-impact mixture with gas chromatography, and found that some of the amino acids had joined into short peptides of up to 3 units long (tripeptides).

Based on the experimental data, the researchers were able to estimate that the amount of peptides produced would be around the same as had been thought to be produced by normal terrestrial processes (such as lighting storms or hydration and dehydration cycles).

Artists concept of the stardust spacecraft flying throug the gas and dust from comet Wild 2. Credit: NASA/JPL
Artists concept of the stardust spacecraft flying throug the gas and dust from comet Wild 2. Credit: NASA/JPL
“This finding indicates that comet impacts almost certainly played an important role in delivering the seeds of life to the early Earth,” said Sugahara. “It also opens the likelihood that we will have seen similar chemical evolution in other extraterrestrial bodies, starting with cometary-derived peptides.”

The earliest known fossils on Earth are from about 3.5 billion years ago and there is evidence that biological activity took place even earlier. But there’s evidence that early Earth had little water and carbon-based molecules on the Earth’s surface, so how could these building blocks of life delivered to the Earth’s surface so quickly? This was also about the time of the Late Heavy Bombardment, and so the obvious answer could be the collision of comets and asteroids with the Earth, since these objects contain abundant supplies of both water and carbon-based molecules.

A view of NASA's Deep Impact probe colliding with comet Tempel 1, captured by the Deep Impact flyby spacecraft's high-resolution instrument.
A view of NASA’s Deep Impact probe colliding with comet Tempel 1, captured by the Deep Impact flyby spacecraft’s high-resolution instrument.

Space missions to comets are helping to confirm this possibility. The 2004 Stardust mission found the amino acid when it collected particles from Comet Wild 2. When NASA’s Deep Impact spacecraft crashed into Comet Tempel 1 in 2005, it discovered a mixture of organic and clay particles inside the comet. One theory about the origins of life is that clay particles act as a catalyst, allowing simple organic molecules to get arranged into more and more complex structures.

The news from the current Rosetta mission to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko also indicates that comets are a rich source of materials, and more discoveries are likely to be forthcoming from that mission.

Jets of gas and dust are blasting from the active neck of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in this photo mosaic assembled from four images taken on 26 September 2014 by the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft at a distance of 26.3 kilometers (16 miles) from the center of the comet. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Jets of gas and dust are blasting from the active neck of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in this photo mosaic assembled from four images taken on 26 September 2014 by the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft at a distance of 26.3 kilometers (16 miles) from the center of the comet. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

“Two key parts to this story are how complex molecules are initially generated on comets and then how they survive/evolve when the comet hits a planet like the Earth,” said Professor Mark Burchell from the University of Kent in the UK, commenting on the new research from Japan. “Both of these steps can involve shocks which deliver energy to the icy body… building on earlier work, Dr. Sugahara and Dr. Mimura have shown how amino acids on icy bodies can be turned into short peptide sequences, another key step along the path to life.”

“Comet impacts are normally associated with mass extinction on Earth, but this works shows that they probably helped kick-start the whole process of life in the first place,” said Sugahara. “The production of short peptides is the key step in the chemical evolution of complex molecules. Once the process is kick-started, then much less energy is needed to make longer chain peptides in a terrestrial, aquatic environment.”

The scientists also indicated that similar “kickstarting” could have happened in other places in our Solar System, such as on the icy moons Europa and Enceladus, as they likely underwent a similar comet bombardment.

Sugahara and Mimura presented their findings at the Goldschmidt geochemistry conference in Prague, going on this week.

Weekly Space Hangout – September 20, 2013: Antares Launch, Rocket Armadillo, ISON Craziness

It’s Friday so it’s space hangout time. Join Universe Today publisher Fraser Cain and a crew of space journalists as they discuss the big stories of the week. We’ve got the launch of the Antares rocket, a freaked out armadillo, an unexpected end to Deep Impact, ISON conspiracy madness, and more. We were joined by our regulars, but it was Elizabeth Howell’s first time. She’s been a long-time contributor to Universe Today, but this was the first time she’s joined the Weekly Space Hangout.

Host: Fraser Cain

Commentary: Amy Shira Teitel, David Dickinson, Elizabeth Howell, Jason Major

Antares Launches to the Space Station
Antares Freaks Out Armadillo
Ending for Deep Impact
More ISON Craziness
No Methane on Mars
Did the Universe Come From a Black Hole
I Didn’t Think He’d Drown
Rubber Room Under the Launch Pad

We record the Weekly Space Hangout every Friday afternoon at 12:00 Pacific, 3:00 Eastern, or 20:00 GMT. You can watch it live on Google+ or on Universe Today. You can also get the audio version within the 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast.

An Unexpected Ending for Deep Impact

After almost 9 years in space that included an unprecedented July 4th impact and subsequent flyby of a comet, an additional comet flyby, and the return of approximately 500,000 images of celestial objects, NASA’s Deep Impact/EPOXI mission has officially been brought to a close.

The project team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has reluctantly pronounced the mission at an end after being unable to communicate with the spacecraft for over a month. The last communication with the probe was Aug. 8. Deep Impact was history’s most traveled comet research mission, having journeyed a total of about 4.7 billion miles (7.58 billion kilometers).

“Deep Impact has been a fantastic, long-lasting spacecraft that has produced far more data than we had planned,” said Mike A’Hearn, the Deep Impact principal investigator at the University of Maryland in College Park. “It has revolutionized our understanding of comets and their activity.”

Artist's rendering of the Deep Impactor flyby spacecraft (NASA)
Artist’s rendering of the Deep Impactor flyby spacecraft (NASA)

Launched in January 2005, the spacecraft first traveled about 268 million miles (431 million kilometers) to the vicinity of comet Tempel 1. On July 3, 2005, the spacecraft deployed an impactor into the path of comet to essentially be run over by its nucleus on July 4. This caused material from below the comet’s surface to be blasted out into space where it could be examined by the telescopes and instrumentation of the flyby spacecraft.  Sixteen days after that comet encounter, the Deep Impact team placed the spacecraft on a trajectory to fly back past Earth in late December 2007 to put it on course to encounter another comet, Hartley 2 in November 2010, thus beginning the spacecraft’s new EPOXI mission.

“Six months after launch, this spacecraft had already completed its planned mission to study comet Tempel 1,” said Tim Larson, project manager of Deep Impact at JPL. “But the science team kept finding interesting things to do, and through the ingenuity of our mission team and navigators and support of NASA’s Discovery Program, this spacecraft kept it up for more than eight years, producing amazing results all along the way.”

The spacecraft’s extended mission culminated in the successful flyby of comet Hartley 2 on Nov. 4, 2010. Along the way, it also observed six different stars to confirm the motion of planets orbiting them, and took images and data of the Earth, the Moon and Mars. These data helped to confirm the existence of water on the Moon, and attempted to confirm the methane signature in the atmosphere of Mars.  One sequence of images is a breathtaking view of the Moon transiting across the face of Earth.

This image of comet ISON C/2012 S1 from NASA’s Deep Impact/EPOXI  spacecraft clearly shows the coma and nucleus on Jan. 17 and 18, 2013 beyond the orbit of Jupiter. Credit: NASA.
This image of comet ISON C/2012 S1 from NASA’s Deep Impact/EPOXI spacecraft clearly shows the coma and nucleus on Jan. 17 and 18, 2013 beyond the orbit of Jupiter. Credit: NASA.

The spacecraft’s extended mission culminated in the successful flyby of comet Hartley 2 on Nov. 4, 2010. In January 2012, Deep Impact performed imaging and accessed the composition of distant comet C/2009 P1 (Garradd).

It took images of comet ISON this year and collected early images of comet ISON in June.

After losing contact with the spacecraft last month, mission controllers spent several weeks trying to uplink commands to reactivate its onboard systems. Although the exact cause of the loss is not known, analysis has uncovered a potential problem with computer time tagging that could have led to loss of control for Deep Impact’s orientation. That would then affect the positioning of its radio antennas, making communication difficult, as well as its solar arrays, which would in turn prevent the spacecraft from getting power and allow cold temperatures to ruin onboard equipment, essentially freezing its battery and propulsion systems.

Without battery power, the Deep Impact spacecraft is now adrift and silent, spinning out of control through the solar system.

Launch of Deep Impact aboard a Boeing Delta II from Cape Canaveral AFB on Jan. 12, 2005 (NASA)
Launch of Deep Impact aboard a Boeing Delta II rocket from Cape Canaveral AFS on Jan. 12, 2005 (NASA)

“Despite this unexpected final curtain call, Deep Impact already achieved much more than ever was envisioned. Deep Impact has completely overturned what we thought we knew about comets and also provided a treasure trove of additional planetary science that will be the source data of research for years to come.”

– Lindley Johnson, Program Executive for the Deep Impact mission

It’s a sad end for a hardworking spacecraft, but over the course of its 8 1/2 years in space Deep Impact provided many significant results for the science community. Here are the top five, according to the mission’s principal investigator Michael A’Hearn.

Read more about the Deep Impact mission here.

Source: NASA press release

Weekly Space Hangout – Sept. 6, 2013: LADEE Launch, Chris Kraft, Life From Mars, SpaceShipTwo and More

We missed a week, but now we’re back with the Weekly Space Hangout… back with a vengeance, with a full crew of 8 space journalists. We talked about the upcoming LADEE Launch, the test flight of SpaceShipTwo, an interview with Chris Kraft and much much more.

Host: Fraser Cain

Journalists: Alan Boyle, Amy Shira Teitel, Casey Dreier, Jason Major, Dr. Nicole Gugliucci, David Dickinson, and Eric Berger

LADEE Launch Set for Friday Night
Get Involved with LADEE
Chris Kraft on NASA
Did Life on Earth Come From Mars
Deep Impact… Dead?
Kepler Re-purposing Ideas
SpaceShipTwo Test
Europa Clipper Mission Update
M87 Jet Seen By Hubble
Black Hole Shuts Down Star Formation

We broadcast the Weekly Space Hangout as a live Google+ Hangout on Air every Friday at 12:00pm Pacific / 3:00pm Eastern. You can watch the show on Universe Today, or from the Cosmoquest Event when we post it.

Deep Impact Images Spectacular incoming Comet ISON – Curiosity & NASA Armada Will Try

Image Caption: This image of comet ISON (C/2012 S1) ) from NASA’s Deep Impact spacecraft clearly shows the coma and nucleus on Jan. 17/18, 2013 beyond the orbit of Jupiter. See the dramatic new movie sequence below. It combines all 146 80-second clear filter exposures for a total integration time of 11680 seconds (about 3.25 hours). Individual frames were shifted to align the comet at the center before coadding. By keeping the comet centered and adding all of the images together, the stars effectively get smeared so the long streaks are the trails of background stars. Some have called it the “Comet of the Century.” Credit: NASA

NASA’s legendary Deep Impact comet smashing spacecraft has just scored another major coup – Imaging the newly discovered Comet ISON. The comet could possibly become one of the brightest comets ever late this year as it passes through the inner Solar System and swings around the Sun for the very first time in history – loaded with pristine, volatile material just raring to burst violently forth from the eerie surface, and is therefore extremely interesting to scientists. See the Movie below

“Comet ISON was just imaged by Deep Impact out by Jupiter on Jan. 17 and 18,” said Dr. Jim Green, Director of NASA Planetary Sciences at NASA HQ, in an exclusive interview with Universe Today on the campus of Princeton University. “We will try to look at ISON with the Curiosity rover as it flies past Mars, and with other NASA assets in space [along the way]. It should be spectacular!”

“We are all, ops team and science team, thrilled that we were able to make these observations when the comet was still more than 5 AU from the sun,” said Deep Impact Principal Investigator Prof. Michael A’Hearn of the University of Maryland, in an exclusive interview with Universe Today.

ISON could potentially become the next “Great Comet”, according to NASA. Deep Impact is the first spacecraft to observe ISON.

“We are continuing to observe ISON – it is observable from Deep Impact into mid-March 2013,” A’Hearn told me.

ISON will be the 4th comet observed by Deep Impact. On July 4, 2005 the spacecraft conducted a close flyby of Comet Tempel 1 and delivered a comet smashing impactor that made headlines worldwide. Next, it flew near Hartley 2 in Nov. 2010. In January 2012, the spacecraft performed a long distance imaging campaign on comet C/2009 P1 (Garradd). And it has enough fuel remaining for an Asteroid encounter slated for 2020 !

NASA’s assets at Mars should be able to observe ISON because it will fly really, really close to Mars!” Green said with a big smile – and me too, as he showed me a sneak preview of the brand new Deep Impact movie.

“ISON observations are in the cue for Curiosity from Mars surface and from orbit with NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) – and we’ll see how it works out. It should be pretty spectacular. We will absolutely try with Curiosity’s high resolution Mastcam 100 camera.”

“LRO (NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter) also has a good shot at ISON.”

“Because of the possibility of observations of for example ISON, with probes like Deep Impact is why we want to keep NASA’s [older] assets viable.”

146 visible light images snapped by Deep Impact just days ago on Jan. 17 and 18, have been compiled into a dramatic video showing ISON speeding through interplanetary space back dropped by distant star fields – see above and below. The new images were taken by the probes Medium-Resolution Imager (MRI) over a 36-hour period from a distance of 493 million miles (793 million kilometers).

“A composite image, combining all of the Jan 17/18 data – after cleaning up the cosmic rays and improving the S/N (signal to noise ratio) clearly shows the comet has a coma and tail,” said Tony Farnham, a Deep Impact research scientist at the University of Maryland, to Universe Today.

Video Caption: This series of images of comet C/2012 S1 (ISON) was taken by the Medium-Resolution Imager (MRI) of NASA’s Deep Impact spacecraft over a 36-hour period on Jan. 17 and 18, 2013. At the time, the spacecraft was 493 million miles (793 million kilometers) from the comet. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UMD

ISON is a conglomeration of ice and dust and a long period, sun-grazing comet.

“It is coming in from the Solar System’s Oort cloud at the edge of the Solar System”, said Green, and was likely disturbed out of its established orbit by a passing star or other gravitational effects stemming from the Milky Way galaxy. “It will pass within 2.2 solar radii during perihelion and the Sun will either blast it apart or it will survive.”

Despite still being in the outer Solar System and a long distance from the Sun, ISON is already quite “variable” said A’Hearn, and it’s actively spewing material and ‘outgassing”.

The tail extending from the nucleus was already more than 40,000 miles (64,400 kilometers) long on Jan. 18. It’s a science mystery as to why and the Deep Impact team aims to try and determine why.

In addition to imaging, Deep Impact will also begin collecting long range spectral observations in the next week or so to help answer key questions.

“In mid-February, the solar elongation will allow IR (infrared) spectra for a few weeks,” A’Hearn elaborated.

“The 6-7% variability that we observed in the first day of observing shows that there is variable ‘outgassing’, presumably modulated by rotation of the nucleus. We hope to pin down the rotational period with the continuing images.”

“The interesting question is what drives the outgassing!”

Since ISON is still a very great distance away at more than 5 AU, data collection will not be an easy task. The comet is 5.1 AU from the Sun and 5.3 AU from Deep Impact. And the mission could also be imperiled by looming slashes to NASA’s budget if the Federal sequester actually happens in March.

“Getting spectra will be a real challenge because, at these large heliocentric and geocentric distances, the comet is really faint. However, maybe we can test whether CO2 is driving the outgassing,” Ahearn explained.

“Since we have the only facility capable of measuring CO2, it will be important to observe again in our second window in July-August, but that depends on NASA finding a little more money for us.”

“We, both the ops team and the science team, are funded only for the observations through March,” A’Hearn stated.

Although observing predictions for the brightness of comets are sometimes notoriously wrong and they can fade away precipitously, there is some well founded hope that ISON could put on a spectacular sky show for observers in both the northern and southern hemispheres.

The comet will continue to expand in size and grow in brightness as it journeys inward.

“ISON might be pretty spectacular,” said Green. “If things work out it might become bright enough to see during the day and be brighter than the Moon. The tail might be 90 degrees.”

comet20130205-full

Image caption: This is the orbital trajectory of comet C/2012 S1 (ISON). The comet is currently located just inside the orbit of Jupiter. In November 2013, ISON will pass less than 1.1 million miles (1.8 million kilometers) from the sun’s surface. The fierce heating it experiences during this close approach to the sun could turn the comet into a bright naked-eye object. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The best times to observe the comets head and growing tail will be from Nov. 2013 to Jan. 2014, if it survives its closest approach to the Sun, known as perihelion, on Nov. 28, 2013 and doesn’t break apart.

There’s no need to worry about doomsday predictions from conspiracy theorists. At its closest approach next Christmas season on Dec. 26, 2013, ISON will pass by Earth at a safe distance of some 40 million miles.

A pair of Russian astronomers only recently discovered the comet on Sept. 21, 2012, using the International Scientific Optical Network’s 16-inch (40-centimeter) telescope near Kislovodsk.

The study of comets has very important implications for understanding the evolution of not just the Solar System but also the origin of life on Earth. Comets delivered a significant portion of the early Earth’s water as well as a range of both simple and complex organic molecules – the building blocks of life.

Ken Kremer

HRI_937_1[1]

Image caption. Deep Impact images Comet Tempel 1 alive with light after colliding with the impactor spacecraft on July 4, 2005. CREDIT: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UMD

Stardust-NExT Unveils Astoundingly Detailed and Crater-rich Photos of Comet Tempel 1

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NASA’s Stardust-NExT raced past Comet Tempel 1 overnight Feb 14/15 at over 10 km/sec or 24,000 MPH and is now sending back the 72 astoundingly detailed and crisp science images of Comet Tempel 1 taken during closest approach at 11:37 p.m. EST on Feb. 14.

The high resolution images are amazingly sharp and clearly show a pockmarked and crater rich terrain of both new and previously unseen territory on the icy comets surface. The Stardust-NExT comet chaser zoomed within 181 km (112 miles) of the nucleus of the volatile comet.

See the photo gallery above and below, which is being updated as the images come back. I am enhancing and brightening certain images to show further details. The new images of Tempel 1 from Stardust-NExT surpass my expectations and look even sharper then those taken by NASA’s Deep Impact comet smasher in July 2005.

Read more about the Stardust-NExT Flyby and mission in my earlier stories here, here and here

NASA news briefing on Stardust-NExT at 3:30 p.m Feb 15 live on NASA TV

Update: Read my follow up story on the discovery of the Deep Impact crater here

Photo gallery of Comet Tempel 1 images from NASA’s Stardust-NExT comet mission on Feb 14, 2011

NASA's Stardust-NExT mission took this image of comet Tempel 1 at 8:38 p.m. PST (11:38 p.m. EST) on Feb 14, 2011. The comet was first visited by NASA's Deep Impact mission in 2005. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell.
Image brightened and enhanced to show additional detail.
NASA's Stardust-NExT mission took this image of comet Tempel 1 at 8:38 p.m. PST (11:38 p.m. EST) on Feb 14, 2011. The comet was first visited by NASA's Deep Impact mission in 2005. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell.
Image brightened and enhanced to show additional detail.
NASA's Stardust-NExT mission took this image of comet Tempel 1 at 8:39 p.m. PST (11:39 p.m. EST) on Feb 14, 2011. The comet was first visited by NASA's Deep Impact mission in 2005. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell.
Image brightened and enhanced to show additional detail.
NASA's Stardust-NExT mission took this image of comet Tempel 1 at 8:39 p.m. PST (11:39 p.m. EST) on Feb 14, 2011. The comet was first visited by NASA's Deep Impact mission in 2005. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell

NASA's Stardust-NExT mission took this image of comet Tempel 1 at 8:39 p.m. PST (11:39 p.m. EST) on Feb 14, 2011. The comet was first visited by NASA's Deep Impact mission in 2005. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell.
Image brightened and enhanced to show additional detail.

Images brightened and enhanced to show additional detail by Ken Kremer

Stardust-NExT zooms by Comet Tempel 1 for Cosmic Encounter

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NASA’s Stardust-NExT comet chaser successfully zoomed by Comet Temple 1 exactly as planned a short while ago at 11:37 p.m. EST on Feb. 14.

The cosmic Valentine’s Day encounter between the icy comet and the aging probe went off without a hitch. Stardust snapped 72 science images as it raced by at over 10 km/sec or 24,000 MPH and they are all centered in the cameras field of view. The probe came within 181 km (112 miles) of the nucleus of the volatile comet.

The images are being transmitted back now and it will take a several hours until the highest resolution images are available for the science team and the public to see. The first few images from a distance of over a thousand miles can be seen here

Tempel 1 is the first comet to be visited twice by spaceships from Earth. The primary goal was to find out how much the comet has changed in the five years since she was last visited by NASA’s Deep Impact mission in 2005, says Joe Ververka of Cornell University, who is the principal investigator of the Stardust-NExT mission. Deep Impact delivered a 375 kg projectile which blasted the comet and created an impact crater and an enormous cloud of dust so that scientists could study the composition and interior of the comet.

“We are going to be seeing the comet just after its closest passage to the sun. We know the comet is changing because the ice melts. We hope to see old and new territory and the crater and complete the Deep Impact experiment.”

Stardust-NExT is a repurposed spacecraft. Initially christened as Stardust, the spaceships original task was to fly by Comet Wild 2 in 2004. It also collected priceless cometary dust particles from the coma which were safely parachuted back to Earth inside a return canister in 2006. High powered science analysis of the precious comet dust will help researchers discern the origin and evolution of our solar system.

Stardust-NExt approaching Comet Tempel 1.
Artist concept of NASA's Stardust-NExT mission, which will fly by Comet Tempel 1 on Feb. 14, 2011. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LMSS

Stardust was hurriedly snapping high resolution pictures every 6 seconds and collecting data on the dust environment during the period of closest approach which lasted just about 8 minutes. The anticipation was building after 12 years of hard work and a journey of some 6 Billion kilometers (3.5 Billion miles)

“The Stardust spacecraft did a fantastic job,” says Tim Larson, the Stardust-NExT mission project manager from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, Calif. “Stardust has already flown past a asteroid and a comet and returned comet particles to Earth”

“Because of the flyby geometry the antenna was pointed away from earth during the encounter. Therefore all the science images and data was stored in computer memory on board until the spacecraft was rotated to point towards Earth about an hour after the flyby.”

Each image takes about 15 minutes to be transmitted back to Earth by the High Gain Antenna at a data rate of 15,800 bits per second and across about 300 million miles of space.

NASA had bracketed five special images from the closest range as the first ones to be sent back. Instead, the more distant images were sent first. It will take about 10 hours to receive all the images.

So everyone had to wait a few hours longer to see the fruit of their long labor. Most of the team from NASA, JPL and Lockheed Martin has been working on the mission for a dozen years since its inception.

“We had a great spacecraft and a great team,” says Ververka. “Apparently, everything worked perfectly. The hardest thing now is we have to wait a couple of hours before we see all the goodies stored on board.”

The entire flyby was carried out autonomously using a preprogrammed sequence of commands. Due to the vast distance from Earth there was no possibility for mission controllers to intervene in real time.

Confirmation of a successful fly by and science imaging was not received until about 20 minutes after the actual event at about 11:58 p.m. EST. The dust flux monitor also registered increased activity just as occurred during the earlier Stardust flyby of Comet Wild 2 in 2004.

The Stardust-NExT science briefing on NASA TV will be delayed a few hours, until perhaps about 4 p.m. EST

Check back here later at Universe Today, on Tuesday, Feb. 15 for continuing coverage of the Valentine’s Day encounter of Stardust-NExT with the icy, unpredictable and fascinating Comet Tempel 1

Comet Tempel 1 imaged by NASA's Stardust on Feb 14, Valentine’s Day.
NASA's Stardust-NExT mission took this image of comet Tempel 1 at 8:36 p.m. PST (11:36 p.m. EST) on Feb 14, 2011, from a distance of approximately 2200 km (1360 miles). The comet was first visited by NASA's Deep Impact mission in 2005. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell
Stardust-NExT Spacecraft & Comet Tempel 1.
Artist rendering of upcoming flyby on February, 14, 2011. Credit: NASA

Stardust-NExT: 2 Comet Flybys with 1 Spacecraft.
Stardust-NExT made history on Valentine’s Day - February, 14, 2011 – Tempel 1 is the first comet to be visited twice by spacrecraft from Earth. Stardust has now successfully visited 2 comets and gathered science data: Comet Wild 2 in 2004 (left) and Comet Tempel 1 in 2011 (right). Artist renderings Credit: NASA. Collage: Ken Kremer.

Romantic Valentines Day Encounter Looms with Icy Comet

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At last, NASA embraces a romantic rendezvous in the dark void of deep space.

And soon the whole world can watch the up close meet up of the hot Stardust probe and the volatile, icy comet. The historic space tryst is less than a day away!

The Stardust-NExT spacecraft successfully hot fired its thrusters for the final course correction maneuver (TCM-33) on Feb. 12, setting up the fleeting celestial encounter with Comet Tempel 1 on Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14, Monday, at 11:37 p.m. EST. The space science probe will fly by the speeding comet at a distance of approximately 200 kilometers (124 miles) and at a speed of 10 km/sec.

Naturally, the fleeing comet is icy, unpredictable and exploding with jets of gas and dust particles. So there is some uncertainly at NASA and amongst the science team as to what we’ll actually see when the cameras unveil the hidden secrets of the nucleus of Temple 1.

The encounter phase has begun now (Feb. 13) at 24 hours prior to closest approach (Feb. 14) and concludes 24 hours after closest approach.

“The final TCM burn on Feb. 12 went well,” JPL spokesman DC Agle told me today (Feb.13)

It’s been a long wait and a far flung journey. Stardust has cruised some 6 Billion kilometers through our solar system – looping several times around the sun over a dozen years and is now nearly bereft of fuel.

For three and a half long years, the anticipation has been building since NASA approved the repurposing of the Stardust spacecraft in 2007 and fired the thrusters to alter the probes trajectory to Comet Temple 1 for this bonus extended mission.

But until the photos are transmitted across 300 million kilometers of space back to Earth, we won’t know which face of the comets surface was turned towards the camera as the curtain pulls back for the revealing glimpse.

Everything hinges on how accurately the mission team aims the reliable probe and the finicky rotation of the changeable comet.

The irregularly shaped nucleus of Tempel 1 measures barely 5 to 8 km in diameter.

Stardust-NExT: 2 Comet Flybys with 1 Spacecraft.
Stardust-NExT makes history on Valentine’s Day - February, 14, 2011
Tempel 1 is the first comet to be visited twice by spacecraft from Earth. Stardust will have visited 2 comets and gathered science data: Comet Wild 2 in 2004 (left) and Comet Tempel 1 in 2011 (right).
Artist renderings Credit: NASA. Collage: Ken Kremer.

The Feb. 14 encounter marks the first time in history that a comet has been visited twice by spaceships from Earth. The revisit provides the first opportunity for up-close observations of a comet both before and after a single orbital pass around the sun.

In July 2005, NASA’s Deep Impact probe delivered a 375 kg projectile that penetrated at high speed directly into the comets nucleus. The blast created an impact crater and ejected an enormous cloud of debris that was studied by the Deep Impact spacecraft as well as an armada of orbiting and ground based telescopes.

Somewhat unexpectedly, the new crater was totally obscured from the cameras view by light reflecting off the dust cloud.

“The primary goal is to find out how much the comet’s surface has changed between two close passages to the sun since it was last visited in 2005,” says Joe Ververka of Cornell University, who is the principal investigator of the Stardust-NExT mission.

This time around, researchers hope to determine the size of the crater. Numerous bets hinge on that determination.

It’s also quite possible that the crater itself has significantly changed in the intervening five and one half years as the Jupiter-class comet orbits between Mars and Jupiter.

“Comets rarely behave,” says Tim Larson, the Stardust-NExT mission project manager from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, Calif.

“Temple 1 exhibits a complex rotation. The rotation period is about 41 hours. But the trajectory changes due to the comet jets and activity.”

“Ideally we would like to obtain photos of old and new territory and the crater from the Deep Impact encounter in 2005,” Larson explained.

Tempel 1 is the most observed comet in history using telescopes worldwide as well as the Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes.”

Engineers are using all this data to fine tune the aim of the craft and get a handle on which sides of the comet will be imaged. But either way the team will be elated with the science results regardless of whether the images reveal previously seen or new terrain.

Stardust-NExT approaching Comet Tempel 1
Artist concept of NASA's Stardust-NExT mission, which will fly by Comet Tempel 1 on Feb. 14, 2011. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LMSS

Today, Feb. 13, mission controllers at JPL are uplinking the final flyby sequences and parameters for Monday’s (Feb. 14) historic encounter.

Stardust-NExT will take 72 high resolution images of Comet Tempel 1 during the close approach. The team expects the nucleus to be resolved in several of the closest images. These will be stored in an onboard computer and relayed back to Earth starting about three hours later.

“All data from the flyby (including the images and science data obtained by the spacecraft’s two onboard dust experiments) are expected to take about 10 hours to reach the ground,” according to a NASA statement.

3 D stereo view of Comet Wild 2 from Stardust flyby in 2004. Credit: NASA/
Stardust-NExT is a repurposed spacecraft and this will be the last hurrah for the aging probe. Stardust was originally launched way back in 1999 and accomplished its original goal of flying through a dust cloud surrounding the nucleus of Comet Wild 2 on Jan. 2, 2004. During the flyby, the probe also collected comet particles which were successfully returned to Earth aboard a sample return capsule which landed in the Utah desert in January 2006.

Stardust continued its solitary voyage through the void of the space. Until now !

Watch the Stardust-NExT Romantic Rendezvous: Live on NASA TV

NASA has scheduled live mission commentary of the flyby and a post encounter news briefing on Feb. 14 and Feb. 15. These will be televised on NASA TV as follows:

February 14, Monday
11:30 p.m. – 1 a.m. (Feb. 15) – Live Stardust-NExT Mission Commentary (including coverage of closest approach to Comet Tempel 1 and re-establishment of contact with the spacecraft following the encounter) – JPL

February 15, Tuesday
3 – 4:30 a.m. Live Stardust-NExT Mission Commentary (resumes with the arrival of the first close-approach images of Comet Tempel 1) – JPL

1 p.m. – Stardust-NExT Post-Encounter News Briefing – JPL

Five facts you should know about NASA’s Stardust-NExT spacecraft as it prepares for a Valentine’s “date” with comet Tempel 1. From a NASA Press Release

1. “The Way You Look Tonight” – The spacecraft is on a course to fly by comet Tempel 1 on Feb. 14 at about 8:37 p.m. PST (11:37 p.m. EST) — Valentine’s Day. Time of closest approach to Tempel 1 is significant because of the comet’s rotation. We won’t know until images are returned which face the comet has shown to the camera.

Stardust- Earth return capsule with cometary dust particles in 2006. Credit: NASA/JPL
2. “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now” – In 2004, Stardust became the first mission to collect particles directly from a comet, Wild 2, as well as samples of interstellar dust. The samples were returned in 2006 via a capsule that detached from the spacecraft and parachuted to the ground at a targeted area in Utah. Mission controllers then placed the still-viable Stardust spacecraft on a flight path that could reuse the flight system, if a target of opportunity presented itself. Tempel 1 became that target of opportunity.

3. “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” – The Stardust-NExT mission will allow scientists for the first time to look for changes on a comet’s surface that occurred after one orbit around the sun. Tempel 1 was observed in 2005 by NASA’s Deep Impact mission, which put an impactor on a collision course with the comet. Stardust-NExT might get a glimpse of the crater left behind, but if not, the comet would provide scientists with previously unseen areas for study. In addition, the Stardust-NExT encounter might reveal changes to Tempel 1 between Deep Impact and Stardust-Next, since the comet has completed an orbit around the sun.

4. “The Wind Beneath My Wings” – This Tempel 1 flyby will write the final chapter of the spacecraft’s success story. The aging spacecraft approached 12 years of space travel on Feb. 7, logging almost 6 billion kilometers (3.5 billion miles) since launch. The spacecraft is nearly out of fuel. The Tempel 1 flyby and return of images are expected to consume the remaining fuel.

5. “Love is Now the Stardust of Yesterday” – Although the spacecraft itself will no longer be active after the flyby, the data collected by the Stardust-NExT mission will provide comet scientists with years of data to study how comets formed and evolved.

Do you know the artists names who wrote and sing these celestially romantic tunes ?

NASA Stardust NExT Video: Date with a Comet – Tempel 1

Stardust-NExT Spacecraft & Comet Tempel 1.
Artist rendering of upcoming flyby on February, 14, 2011. Credit: NASA
13 Feb 2011 Position of STARDUST-NExT probe
Looking Down on the Sun. This image shows the current position of the STARDUST spacecraft and the spacecraft's trajectory (in blue) around the Sun. Credit: NASA

Latest navigation camera images of Comet Temple 1 coma and surrounding stars.
Taken by Stardust-NExT at about 10:30 a.m. on Feb. 11 – newly obtained from JPL. This region is about 1.2 degrees on a side - 351 x 351 pixels. Exposure duration 10 seconds. These images are crucial for precisely aiming Stardust-NExT. Credit: NASA/JPL
Enlargement of latest navigation camera image of Comet Temple 1 coma and surrounding stars showing a small section around the comet. Taken by Stardust-NExT at about 10:30 a.m. on Feb. 11 – newly obtained from JPL. Exposure duration 10 seconds. These images are crucial for precisely aiming Stardust-NExT. Credit: NASA/JPL

Stardust NExT Targets Valentines Day Encounter with Comet Tempel 1

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After a more than decade long journey of 6 billion kilometers, hopes are high for a celestial date in space between an icy comet and a thrusting probe on Valentine’s Day 2011. The rendezvous in space between NASA’s approaching Stardust-NExT spacecraft and Comet Tempel 1 takes place nearly on the exact opposite side of the Sun on Feb 14, 2011 at approximately 11:37 p.m. EST (8:37 p.m. PST).

The top science goal is to find out “how much the comet’s surface has changed between two close passages to the sun” since it was last visited in 2005, said principal investigator Joe Veverka of Cornell University, Ithaca, N,Y at a media briefing today, Jan 19, at NASA Headquarters. Indeed it’s the first time in history that a comet has been visited twice by space probes from Earth.

The lead scientists and engineers outlined the plans for the cometary flyby at the briefing. See a video of the entire briefing below.


Since the last visit in 2005, the comet has completed another orbit around the sun. “It will be the first time we’ll be able to see changes after a comet has passed through one perihelion,” explained Veverka. Tempel 1 belongs to the Jupiter family of comets and orbits between Mars and Jupiter.


Comet Tempel 1 suffered a cosmic collision during that first encounter with an emissary from Earth when NASA’s Deep Impact smashed a copper projectile directly into the comets nucleus. The blast created an impact crater and ejected an enormous cloud of gas and debris. Reflected light off the dust particles totally obscured the view of the crater and prevented any images from being taken. Researchers had hoped to determine the size of the crater. A lot of bets hinge on that determination.

“We have a chance to complete the Deep Impact experiment. We hope to see how big the impact crater is and what that tells us about the mechanical properties, ” said Veverka.

20 Jan. 2011 Position of STARDUST-NExT probe - Looking Down on the Sun.
This image shows the current position of the STARDUST-NExT spacecraft and the spacecraft's trajectory (in blue) around the Sun. Credit: NASA

With just over 3 weeks remaining, the craft is approximately 24.6 million kilometers (15.3 million miles) away from its encounter. Stardust-NExT will zoom past the nearly 6-kilometer-wide comet (3.7 miles) at a distance of approximately 200 kilometers (124 miles) and at a speed of 10 km/sec according to Tim Larson, the mission’s project manager from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, Calif.

“The spacecraft is still working well 12 years after launch. This is a bonus mission with a scientifically desirable target which we can get close to,” said Larson.

“Everything will happen autonomously,” stated Larson. “The craft will be about 2 AU away from Earth at encounter. Since the round trip signals will take about 40 minutes there is no chance for any real time changes.”

Different features on Tempel 1 discovered by Deep Imapct in 2005. Credit: NASA

“Stardust-NExT will take 72 high resolution images during the close approach encounter. These will be stored in an onboard computer and relayed back to Earth starting about an hour later. It will take about 12 hours to get them all back.”

NASA says that after processing, the images are expected to be available at approximately 4:30 a.m. EST (1:30 a.m. PST) on Feb. 15.

“For the first time we’ll go back to see what happens to a comet since our last visit,” explained Pete Schultz, co-investigator of Brown University, Providence, R.I. “The comet has been out to the orbit of Jupiter and back to Mars and had several outbursts of gas and dust. In 2005 we saw old and new surfaces. So it has a complicated geologic history. We hope to resolve the crater and see ejecta. But there are many unknowns. What we see – whether its the crater or the other unseen side – all depends on the rotation of the comet nucleus.”

“The comet dynamics are complex and erratic, not inert,” said Steve Chesley, a co-investigator at JPL. “They are like a rocket with no one at the controls. The orbit can change. So it is a huge challenge to target a spacecraft for a flyby or rendezvous.”

Stardust successful original mission was to fly by Comet Wild 2 on Jan 2, 2004. It then returned cometary dust particle in a sample return canister to Earth on Jan. 19, 2006 which reentered the atmosphere at the highest speed ever and parachuted to a safe landing. Credit: NASA

Stardust-NeXT is a repurposed spacecraft. The Valentine’s Day encounter will be the last hurrah for the aging probe. Stardust was originally launched way back in 1999. It flew by Comet Wild 2 on Jan. 2, 2004 and collected cometary dust particles which were returned to Earth in a sample return capsule in Jan. 2006. Since then it has continued its solitary voyage through the void of the space.

The craft is nearly out of fuel and all movements consume fuel. It is totally dependent on the reaction control thrusters for navigating through space and pointing its camera and science instruments, said Larson.

“We are confident that we will have enough fuel to finish up this mission. It has been a big, big challenge to maintain a reserve supply. After the mission there won’t be much left that the spacecraft can do. The last trajectory correction maneuver is two days before arrival. That is also when we will take our last optical navigation images for targeting the spacecraft.”
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Only about a third of the surface of Tempel 1 was photographed by Deep Impact in 2005. “We’ll be looking at old territory and new and some overlap,” explained Veverka. “The science team is awfully excited and just can’t wait to see the pictures on Valentine’s day.”

“We have no idea how quickly the surface features change and whether its millions of years or days,” concluded Veverka.

“We expect new discoveries no matter what we see,” Larson summed up

Stardust-NExT Spacecraft & Comet Tempel 1. Artist rendering of Stardust-NExT spacecraft nearing Comet Tempel 1 for upcoming flyby on February, 14, 2011. Credit: NASA
See video and graphics below of Jan 19, 2011 Media briefing from the Science Team about plans for the cometary encounter
Planned imaging of Comet Tempel 1 by Stardust-NExT during flyby. Blue area is unseen and unmapped territory never imaged by Deep Impact during 2005 flyby. Bulls eye in yellow area is expected location of 2005 impact crater and expected new coverage. There is some overlap. Credit: NASA
Planned imaging of Comet Tempel 1 by Stardust-NExT during flyby. Blue area is unseen and unmapped territory never imaged by Deep Impact during 2005 flyby. Credit: NASA

Jan. 19, 2010: Science Team Media Briefing

The Stardust spacecraft has been repackaged for the Stardust-NexT mission. Stardust-NExT will rendezvous with Comet Tempel 1 on February 14, giving scientists an opportunity, for the first time, to search a comet’s surface for changes following its orbit around the sun. Mission scientists discussed the relevance of the mission at a briefing at NASA headquarters in Washington

Stardust successful original mission was to fly by Comet Wild 2 on Jan 2, 2004 and return cometary dust particle to earth in Jan. 2006. It is equipped with 3 science instruments. Credit: NASA

35 Days to STARDUST-NeXT Valentines Day Flyby of Comet Tempel 1

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35 Days and Counting !

NASA’s re-purposed STARDUST- NeXT spacecraft is set to flyby Comet Tempel 1 at a distance of just 200 km on Valentine’s Day – February 14, 2011 at about 8:36 p.m. PST. The encounter marks the first time that a comet has been visited twice by probes from Earth. The revisit also provides the first opportunity for up-close observations of a comet both before and after a single orbital pass around the sun.

Comet Tempel 1 was first visited by NASA’s Deep Impact comet smashing mission in July 2005. Deep Impact delivered a 375 kg projectile into the path of Temple 1 that resulted in a high speed impact directly into the comet nucleus.

The cosmic collision of about 10.2 km/sec (22,800 miles/hour) ejected a cloud of debris that was studied by the Deep Impact spacecraft as well as an armada of orbiting and ground based telescopes. The impact crater itself was obscured by the debris cloud. The spacecraft did find the first evidence of surface ice on a comet instead of just inside a comet. Stardust NExT will take images and spectra of Tempel 1 and hunt for the impact crater.

Artists concept of NASA’s STARDUST- NeXT probe which will fly by Comet Tempel 1 on Feb. 14, 2011. Credit: NASA

According to the latest update posted at the STARDUST- NeXT mission website on Jan 6; “The spacecraft is healthy and began the New Year with a cold boot to clear a memory address latch-up that had occurred late in 2010. This cold boot clears the latched line and resets the memory to its factory settings.”

The reboot was completely successful and sets the probe up to accomplish the missions science objectives. On board optical navigation cameras were scheduled to take a new set of images on Jan. 6.

The update further states that the mission plan has now changed substantially to accommodate two new challenges. First the estimated fuel remaining on board is lower than expected. Second, the optical navigation cameras failed to detect the comet in the prior set of images in December.

10 Jan. 2011 Position of STARDUST-NeXT probe - Looking Down on the Sun. This image shows the current position of the STARDUST spacecraft and the spacecraft's trajectory (in blue) around the Sun. Credit: NASA

The optical cameras provide the key information to precisely navigate the probe to the comet. “Current estimates show that the comet may not be bright enough to detect with the Navcam until the latter half of January,” states the update.

As a result of the lower fuel estimate the remaining trajectory maneuvers (TCM’s) have been adjusted to January 31, February 7, and February 12. No science images will be taken until the last 7 days prior to the Feb 14 encounter.

Caption: Video of Comet Tempel 1 as NASA’s Deep Impact comet spacecraft delivers a projectile which smashed into the comet in July 2005. NASA’s STARDUST- NeXT probe is set to flyby Comet Tempel 1 on February, 14, 2011. The probe will collect numerous high resolution images of the coma and nucleus and hunt for the elusive 2005 impact crater.

The team states that these changes will provide “positive fuel margin through encounter …. and places the TCMs at times best able to accommodate late detection of the comet”.

The engineering team is building new approach sequences to accommodate these significant changes to the approach and Comet Tempel 1 encounter on Feb 14.

A briefing by the science team will be carried live on NASA TV on Jan. 19 at 2 PM EST

The Stardust spacecraft accomplished its original goal of flying through a dust cloud surrounding the nucleus of comet Wild 2 in Jan. 2004. The probe successfully gathered particles of cometary material during the flyby, The comet particles were returned to Earth aboard a sample return capsule which landed in the Utah desert in January 2006.

Comet particle tracks in aerogel returned to Earth by STARDUST in January 2006