Man-Made Comet Crater

Before-and-after comparison of the part of comet Tempel 1. 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

NASA Releases Images of Man-Made Crater on Comet

NASA’s Stardust spacecraft returned new images of a comet showing a scar resulting from the 2005 Deep Impact mission. The images also showed the comet has a fragile and weak nucleus.

Studying the structure and behavior of comets is important for astrobiologists attempting to determine the potential role of these space objects in the origin of life on Earth. Comet impacts may have delivered water and molecules to the early Earth that were essential for life’s beginnings. Studying how Deep Impact affected the comet Tempel 1 is also of interest to astrobiologists studying life’s future on Earth. Impacts have changed the history and evolution of life by causing events like mass extinctions. Deep Impact’s violent collision with Tempel 1 can help scientists develop potential defense strategies for deflecting near-Earth asteroids and comets that pose a threat to Earth.

The spacecraft made its closest approach to comet Tempel 1 on Monday, Feb. 14, at 8:40 p.m. PST (11:40 p.m. EST) at a distance of approximately 178 kilometers (111 miles). Stardust took 72 high-resolution images of the comet. It also accumulated 468 kilobytes of data about the dust in its coma, the cloud that is a comet’s atmosphere. The craft is on its second mission of exploration called Stardust-NExT, having completed its prime mission collecting cometary particles and returning them to Earth in 2006.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell

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

"This mission is 100 percent successful," said Joe Veverka, Stardust-NExT principal investigator of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. "We saw a lot of new things that we didn’t expect, and we’ll be working hard to figure out what Tempel 1 is trying to tell us."

Several of the images provide tantalizing clues to the result of the Deep Impact mission’s collision with Tempel 1. "We see a crater with a small mound in the center, and it appears that some of the ejecta went up and came right back down," said Pete Schultz of Brown University, Providence, R.I. "This tells us this cometary nucleus is fragile and weak based on how subdued the crater is we see today."

Erosion of the surface of comet Tempel 1, observed by NASA’s Deep Impact Mission in 2005 (top) and NASA’s Stardust-NExT mission on Feb. 14, 2011 (bottom). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Maryland/Cornell

Engineering telemetry downlinked after closest approach indicates the spacecraft flew through waves of disintegrating cometary particles, including a dozen impacts that penetrated more than one layer of its protective shielding.

"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."

While the Valentine‘s Day night encounter of Tempel 1 is complete, the spacecraft will continue to look at its latest cometary obsession from afar.

"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 low-cost mission that is expanding the investigation of comet Tempel 1 initiated by the Deep Impact spacecraft. The mission is managed by JPL for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver built the spacecraft and manages day-to-day mission operations.

The latest Stardust-Next/Tempel 1 images are online at: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/stardust/multimedia/gallery-index.html.