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.

How A Comet-Chasing Spacecraft ‘Likely’ Brought Interstellar Dust Back To Earth

If the scientists are right, a NASA spacecraft brought stuff from outside the solar system back to Earth. The Stardust spacecraft, which was originally tasked with chasing after Comet Wild 2, brought our planet seven grains that look fluffier than expected.

While the scientists say that more tests are needed to determine these particles originated from outside the solar system, they are confident enough to publish a paper on the findings today.

“They are very precious particles,” stated Andrew Westphal, a physicist at the University of California, Berkeley’s space sciences laboratory who led 65 co-authors who created a paper on the research.

What’s more, the findings came with a big assist from volunteers who participated in a crowdsourced project to look at dust tracks in Stardust’s aerogel detector.

The Stardust spacecraft was launched in February 1999 to gather samples of Comet Wild 2 and return them to our planet. Stardust also attempted to collect interstellar dust twice in 2000 and 2002 for 195 days. Its mission was extended in 2011 to look at Comet Tempel-1, the comet that Deep Impact crashed into.

The sample return capsule, however, separated from the spacecraft in January 2006 as planned while Stardust flew by our planet, landing safely on Earth. Comet samples and interstellar samples were stored separately. Scientists then began the work of seeing what the spacecraft had picked up.

An electron scanning microscope image of an interstellar dust impact on the Stardust spacecraft. The crater is 280 nanometers across. Residue from the dust particle is barely visible in the center. Credit: Rhonda Stroud, Naval Research Laboratory
An electron scanning microscope image of an interstellar dust impact on the Stardust spacecraft. The crater is 280 nanometers across. Residue from the dust particle is barely visible in the center. Credit: Rhonda Stroud, Naval Research Laboratory

Here’s where the volunteers came in. These people, who called themselves “Dusters”, participated in a project called [email protected] that put more than a million images online for people to examine.

Three particles, dubbed “Orion”, “Hylabrook” and “Sorok”, were found in the aerogel detectors after volunteers discovered their tracks. (Many more tracks were discovered, but only a handful led to dust. Also, 100 tracks and about half of the 132 aerogel panels still need to be analyzed.)

Four more particles were tracked down in aluminum foils between the aerogel tiles. That wasn’t originally where they were supposed to be collectors, but despite their “splatted” and melted appearance there was enough left for scientists to analyze. (About 95% of the foils still need to be examined.)

One of the two largest specks found in the Stardust spacecraft that are suspected interstellar dust. This containned olivine, spinel, magnesium and iron. Credit: Westphal et al. 2014, Science/AAAS
One of the two largest specks found in the Stardust spacecraft that are suspected interstellar dust. This containned olivine, spinel, magnesium and iron. Credit: Westphal et al. 2014, Science/AAAS

So what did the scientists see? They describe the particles as fluffy, sometimes appearing to come from a mix of particles. The largest ones included crystalline material called olivine (a magnesium-iron-silicate). More testing is planned to see what their abundances of different types of oxygen are, which could help better understand where they came from.

Additionally, three of the foil particles had sulfur compounds, which is controversial because some astronomers believe that isn’t possible in interstellar dust particles.

The research was published in the journal Science. Twelve more papers on Stardust will be published in Meteoritics & Planetary Science.

Sources: University of California – Berkeley

We Are Made of Stardust

This brief quote by the late Carl Sagan is wonderfully illustrated in the beautiful and poignant short film “Stardust,” directed by Mischa Rozema of Amsterdam-based media company PostPanic. Using actual images from space exploration as well as CGI modeling, Stardust reminds us that everything we and the world around us are made of was created inside stars… and that, one day, our home star will once again free all that “stuff” back out into the Universe.

The film was made in memory of talented Dutch designer Arjan Groot, who died of cancer in July 2011 at the age of 39.

“I wanted to show the universe as a beautiful but also destructive place. It’s somewhere we all have to find our place within. As a director, making Stardust was a very personal experience but it’s not intended to be a personal film and I would want people to attach their own meanings to the film so that they can also find comfort based on their own histories and lives.”
– Mischa Rozema, director

A truly stunning tribute.

See more about this on PostPanic’s Vimeo page. (Credits after the jump.)

Credits:
A PostPanic Production
Written & directed by Mischa Rozema
Produced by Jules Tervoort
VFX Supervisor: Ivor Goldberg
Associate VFX Supervisor: Chris Staves
Senior digital artists: Matthijs Joor, Jeroen Aerts
Digital artists: Marti Pujol, Silke Finger, Mariusz Kolodziejczak, Dieuwer Feldbrugge, Cara To, Jurriën Boogert
Camera & edit: Mischa Rozema
Production: Ania Markham, Annejes van Liempd
Audio by Pivot Audio , Guy Amitai
Featuring “Helio” by Ruben Samama
Copyright 2013 Post Panic BV, All rights reserved

In the grand scheme of the universe, nothing is ever wasted and it finds comfort in us all essentially being Stardust ourselves. Voyager represents the memories of our loved ones and lives that will never disappear.

Stardust-NExT sees Jets and impact crater at Comet Tempel 1 and says Farewell !

[/caption]Farewell Stardust-NExT !

Today marks the end to the final chapter in the illustrious saga of NASA’s Stardust-NExT spacecraft, a groundbreaking mission of cometary exploration.

Mission controllers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory commanded the probe to fire the main engines for the very last time today at about 7 p.m. EDT (March 24). The burn will continue until the spacecraft entirely depletes the tiny amount of residual fuel remaining in the propellant tanks. The Stardust probe is now being decommissioned and is about 312 million kilometers away from Earth.

This action will effectively end the life of the storied comet hunter, which has flown past an asteroid (Annefrank), two comets (Wild 2 and Tempel 1) and also returned the first ever pristine samples of a comet to Earth for high powered analysis by the most advanced science instruments available to researchers.

NASA’s Stardust space probe completed her amazing science journey on Feb. 14, 2011 by streaking past Comet Tempel 1 at 10.9 km/sec, or 24,000 MPH and successfully sending back 72 high resolution images of the comets nucleus and other valuable science data. Tempel 1 became the first comet to be visited twice by spacecraft from Earth.

During the Feb. 14, 2011 flyby of Comet Tempel 1, Stardust-NExT discovered the man-made crater created back in 2005 by NASA’s Deep Impact mission and also imaged gas jets eminating from the comet. My imaging partner Marco Di Lorenzo and myself prepared two posters illustrating the finding of the jets and the Deep Impact crater included in this article.

6 Views of Comet Tempel 1 and Deep Impact crater from Stardust-NExT spacecraft flyby on Feb. 14, 2011. Arrows show location of man-made crater created in 2005 by NASA’s prior Deep Impact comet smashing mission and newly imaged as Stardust-NExT zoomed past comet in 2011.
The images progress in time during closest approach to comet beginning at upper left and moving clockwise to lower left. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Maryland/Post process and annotations by Marco Di Lorenzo/Kenneth Kremer

The rocket burn will be the last of some 2 million rocket firings all told since the Stardust spacecraft was launched back in 1999. Over a dozen years, Stardust has executed 40 major flight path maneuvers and traveled nearly 6 billion kilometers.

The rocket firing also serves another purpose as a quite valuable final contribution to science. Since there is no fuel gauge on board or precise method for exactly determining the quantity of remaining fuel, the firing will tell the engineers how much fuel actually remains on board.

To date the team has relied on several analytical methods to estimate the residual fuel. Comparing the results of the actual firing experiment to the calculations derived from estimates will aid future missions in determining a more accurate estimation of fuel consumption and reserves.

“We call it a ‘burn to depletion,’ and that is pretty much what we’re doing – firing our rockets until there is nothing left in the tank,” said Stardust-NExT project manager Tim Larson of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif in a statement. “It’s a unique way for an interplanetary spacecraft to go out. Essentially, Stardust will be providing us useful information to the very end.”

Just prior to the burn, Stardust will turn its medium gain antenna towards Earth and transmit the final telemetry in real time. Stardust is being commanded to fire the thrusters for 45 minutes but the team expects that there is only enough fuel to actually fire for up to perhaps around ten minutes.

On March 24, at about 4 p.m. PDT, four rocket motors on NASA's Stardust spacecraft, illustrated in this artist's concept, are scheduled to fire until the spacecraft's fuel is depleted. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

As its final act, the transmitters will be turned off (to prevent accidental transmissions to other spacecraft), all communications will cease and that will be the end of Stardust’s life.

With no more fuel available, the probe cannot maintain attitude control, power its solar array or point its antenna. And its far enough away from any targets that there are no issues related to planetary protection requirements.

“I think this is a fitting end for Stardust. It’s going down swinging,” Larson stated in the press release.

Stardust-NExT website

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

Relive the Feb. 14 Flyby of Comet Tempel 1 in this movie of NASA/JPL images

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.
Stardust-NExT location on March 11, 2011 just prior to farewell transmission. Credit: NASA/JPL

Sounds of Comet Tempel 1 smashing into Stardust-NExT

As Stardust-Next was racing past Comet Tempel at 9.8 km/sec, or 24,000 MPH, it encountered a hail of bullet like particles akin to a warplane meeting the fury of armed resistance fighters which potentially could have utterly destroyed the probe.

NASA has released a cool sound track of the sounds of thousands of cometary dust particles pelting Stardust-NExT. The audio was recorded by an instrument aboard the spacecraft called the Dust Flux Monitor which measures sound waves and electrical pulses from dust impacts.

Telemetry downlinked after the Feb. 14 flyby indicates the spacecraft flew through waves of disintegrating cometary particles.

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

I contacted co-investigator Don Brownlee for further insight into the sounds and sights of the Tempel 1 flyby.

“The 12 biggest particles penetrated the centimeter thick front honeycomb plate of the whipple meteoroid shield and were detected with the Dust Flux Monitor Instrument,“ Brownlee told me. “The instrument had two type of sensors made in a collaboration between the University of Chicago and the University of Kent in the UK.
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The shielding was installed to protect Stardust from the hail of cometary particles during its prior flyby at Comet Wild 2 in 2004. Brownlee was the Principal Investigator for Stardust during its original mission at Wild 2.

I asked Brownlee if the shields were essential to the spacecraft surviving the Tempel 1 flyby ?

“Yes,’ he replied.

“A total of approximately 5,000 particle impacts were detected,” Brownlee said. This was over a period of about 11 minutes during closest approach. The movie is in real time and is a visual representation of the sounds. It covers just a portion of the flyby.

“Like at Wild 2, the particles came out in bursts and clumps. The Tempel 1 flyby, the Wild 2 flyby and the recent imaging of Comet Hartley confirm that fragmenting. Dust and ice clods are commonly released into space by comets.”

“The biggest at Wild 2 was about 0.5 cm and this time at Tempel 1 they were probably a bit bigger. The penetrating impacts at Tempel 1 were about twice what they were at Wild 2 ….. Also about twice as fast!”

“The data indicate Stardust went through something similar to a B-17 bomber flying through flak in World War II,” said Don Brownlee, Stardust-NExT co-investigator from the University of Washington in Seattle. “Instead of having a little stream of uniform particles coming out, they apparently came out in chunks and crumbled.”

To my eye, I was surprised that the flyby images seemed to surpass those at Wild 2. Brownlee agreed.

“I was surprised,” said Brownlee. “The team did a terrific job and the images are better than before. Tempel is a little closer to the sun, the flyby was a little closer, the pictures were taken at a much higher rate and the imaging team put in a great effort to plan the exposures and to clean up the camera before the encounter. The mirror was scanning at it’s maximum rate!”

Listen to the Stardust-NExT post flyby briefing

News conference held Feb. 15 following the flyby of comet Tempel 1 by the Stardust-NExT spacecraft on Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14. The spacecraft’s closest approach was a distance of 112 miles. Participants are: Ed Weiler, NASA’s associate administrator, Science Mission Directorate, Washington; Joe Veverka, Stardust-NExT principal investigator, Cornell University; Tim Larson, Stardust-NExT project manager, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.; Don Brownlee, Stardust-NExT co-investigator, University of Washington, Seattle; and Pete Schultz, Stardust-NExT co-investigator, Brown University.

Movies of Comet Tempel 1 Encounter by Stardust-NExT

Want to know what it feels like at close range to ride on a spaceship past a zooming comet that’s spewing dust and debris that could destroy you at any moment ?

Check out the movies (above & below) which gives you a front row seat at NASA’s newest ‘Comet Experience’. Hitch a ride on the rear of Stardust-NExT as it flew past Compet Tempel 1 at 9.8 km/sec, or 24,000 MPH.

The movie comprises the highest resolution images of the fleeting 8 minutes of the closest approach period that occurred between 8:35:26 p.m. to 8:43:08 p.m. PST on Feb. 14, 2011 (4:35:26 a.m. to 4:43:08 a.m. UTC, Feb. 15, 2011, according to the clock kept aboard the spacecraft).

Stardust started taking these the excellent quality photos at a distance of 2,462 kilometers (1,530 miles) away from the center of the comet and get to within 185 kilometers (115 miles). By the end of the movie, the spacecraft is 2,594 kilometers (1,611 miles) away from the center of the comet.

Think about it and the navigational precision required to pull off this feat. After a journey of near 6 billion kilometers (3.5 Billion miles) and 12 years, the highest quality science and images are captured in what amounts to an instant in time.

“And they did it with Math !”, exclaimed NASA Asspciate Admisistrator Ed Weiler at the post encounter briefing. Weiler exhorted school kids worldwide to study math and science if that want to accomplish great deeds.

Comet Tempel 1 was approximately 335 million kilometers (208 million miles) away from Earth and on the other side of the sun during the encounter. Tempel 1 is oblong in shape and has an average diameter of about 6 kilometers (4 miles).

The individual images are all online. Check out these alternate movie versions prepared by Dimitri Demeeter at Youtube and nasatech.net at the links below.

Here’s 1/10 sec with text

Here’s 1/4 sec with text

Here’s 1/2 sec with text

Here’s 1/10 sec w/o text

Here’s 1/2 sec w/o text

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Highlights from the Comet Tempel 1 Post Flyby briefing

more Stardust goodies coming up

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

NASA’s Stardust Discovers Human made Deep Impact Crater on Comet Tempel 1

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NASA’s aging and amazing Stardust space probe has at last discovered the human made crater created on Comet Tempel 1 in 2005 by the history making cosmic smash up with NASA’s Deep Impact penetrator. Stardust streaked past the comet on Feb. 14 at 10.9 km/sec, or 24,000 MPH, and succeeded in briefly photographing the crater as it approached within 178 km (111 mi) during the fleeting moments of the probes closest approach.

The intentional celestial collision in 2005 was designed to violently unleash the buried remnants of the early solar system into an enormous ejecta cloud of dusty debris that scientists could sift for clues to help unlock the secrets of how we all formed and evolved some 4.5 Billion Years ago.

Tempel 1 is the first comet to receive a second visit by probes from Earth.

Comets have continuously smashed into Earth over the eons and delivered vast quantities of key ingredients – such as water and organic molecules – that may have sparked the formation of life on the early Earth.

NASA approved the use of the already orbiting Stardust-NExT spacecraft to follow up on the science discoveries by Deep Impact as the best and most economical way to try and locate the crater blast site, image new terrain and look for changes on the comets surface since the 2005 mission as the comet also completed another orbit around our Sun and eroded due to solar heating.

The human made crater is about 150 meters wide and was formed by a 375 kilogram (800 pound) projectile propelled into the speeding path of Comet Tempel 1 by the Deep Impact mothership in 2005.

Tempel 1 Impact Site.
This pair of images shows the before-and-after comparison of the part of comet Tempel 1 that was hit by the impactor from NASA's Deep Impact spacecraft. The left-hand image is a composite made from images obtained by Deep Impact in July 2005. The right-hand image shows arrows identifying the rim of the crater caused by the impactor. The crater is estimated to be 150 meters (500 feet) in diameter. This image also shows a brighter mound in the center of the crater likely created when material from the impact fell back into the crater. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Maryland/Cornell

Stardust-NExT took 72 high resolution science images of the comet during the Valentine’s Day encounter flyby on Feb, 14 at 11:40 p.m. EST (8:40 p.m. PST). The probe absolutely had to be precisely navigated to exactly hit the aim point for sequencing the images to match the right moment in the erratic rotation of the volatile comet.

The results of the Stardust-NExT mission were announced at a post encounter new briefing after most of the images and science data had streamed back to Earth. The science team and NASA said that all the mission objectives were accomplished.

“If you ask me was this mission 100 percent successful in terms of the science, I’d have to say no. It was 1000 percent successful!” said Stardust-NExT principal investigator Joe Veverka of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., at the news briefing.

“We found the Deep Impact crater. We see erosion in comparison to 2005. So we do see changes. Erosion on the scale of 20 to 30 meters of material has occurred in the five or six years since we took the first picture. We are seeing a change, but we have to spend time quantifying the changes and understanding what they mean.”

“We saw a lot of new territory. It’s amazing with lots of layers. There is lots of surface sublimation. We had to arrive at precisely the right time in order to see new and old territory.”

“We had monitored the comets rotation for several years. And we got the longitude almost perfect within 1 or 2 degrees,” Veverka said.

Tempel 1 Impact Site
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Maryland/Cornell

It took a few years of careful study to deduce the comets complex rotational patterns which change as the body orbits in a wide orbital path between Mars and Jupiter and is heated by the sun.

Peter Schultz, a science team co-investigator agreed and showed the comparison images.

“We saw the crater,” said Schultz, of University. “It’s subdued; it’s about 150 meters across and has a small central mound in the center. It looks as if from the impact, the stuff went up and came back down. So we did get it, there’s no doubt. I think one of the bottom-line messages is that this surface of the comet where we hit is very weak. It’s fragile. So the crater partly healed itself.”

“It was about the size we expected. But more subdued.”

The probes mission is almost complete since it has very little fuel left. The remaining science data from the flyby is being sent back and some outbound data is being collected.

“This spacecraft has logged over 3.5 billion miles 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 repurposed spacecraft that has journeyed nearly 6 billion kilometers since it was launched in 1999.

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 was 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.

This was humanities first revisit to a comet and at a bargain basement price by using an old spacecraft already in space.

“The cost was just $29 Million dollars. A new Discovery class mission costs $300 to 500 Million. So that’s maybe 6% the cost of developing and launching a new mission,” said Ed Weiler, the associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at NASA HQ in Washington, DC.

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

Changes to Smooth Terrain (Annotated)
This image layout depicts changes in the surface of comet Tempel 1, observed first by NASA's Deep Impact Mission in 2005 (top right) and again by NASA's Stardust-NExT mission on Feb. 14, 2011 (bottom right). Between the two visits, the comet made one trip around the sun. The image at top left is a wider shot from Deep Impact. The smooth terrain is at a higher elevation than the more textured surface around it. Scientists think that cliffs, illustrated with yellow lines to the right, are being eroded back to the left in this view. The cliffs appear to have eroded as much as 20 to 30 meters (66 to 100 feet) in some places, since Deep Impact took the initial image. The box shows depressions that have merged together over time, also from erosion. This erosion is caused by volatile substances evaporating away from the comet. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Maryland/Cornell

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