Stardust spacecraft snaps 72 photos of Tempel 1 comet

NASA's Stardust-NExT mission took this image of comet Tempel 1 at 8:35 p.m. PST (11:35 p.m. EST) on Feb 14, 2011, from a distance of approximately 2.37 thousand kilometers (1.47 thousand miles). The comet was first visited by NASA's Deep Impact mission in 2005.
NASA's Stardust-NExT mission took this image of comet Tempel 1 at 8:35 p.m. PST (11:35 p.m. EST) on Feb 14, 2011, from a distance of approximately 2.37 thousand kilometers (1.47 thousand miles). The comet was first visited by NASA's Deep Impact mission in 2005. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell

Last night, a NASA spacecraft played interstellar paparazzi. Stardust snapped 72 pictures as it flew by a six kilometer comet. The goal was to get a better idea of what comets are made of - and where they come from.

At 20 minutes to 9 last night, the Stardust spacecraft flew within 112 miles of the comet Tempel 1. Scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena anxiously waited to see if Stardust would get good pictures of the big rock.

“Copy that, we’ve collected all 72 science images." Applause broke out.

The mission was a success. This marked the first time NASA has been able to get before and after shots of a comet.

Tempel 1 was previously photographed during the Deep Impact mission six years ago. Since then, the comet has made a full orbit around the sun.

JPL engineer Randii Wessen says these pictures will help scientists understand how comets change over time. He says understanding comets is crucial to understanding the history of our universe.

“If you were studying the human body, you don’t want to just see the skin and the head and the arms," says Wessen. "You want to see the basic ingredients of what it’s made and how it works. Well, when you are studying the solar systems, it’s more than just the planets. You want to see the early building blocks of the solar system which we believe comets and asteroids are.”

It takes about 15 minutes for the Stardust spacecraft to send one picture back to Earth. That means it’ll take at least 18 hours for Stardust to send back its 72 snapshots. JPL scientists are waiting for them all now.

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