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STARDUST New Exploration of Tempel-1

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STARDUST-NExT - short for “New Exploration of Tempel-1” is a follow-on mission for STARDUST, one of the great successes of  NASA's Discovery program. STARDUST returned a capsule of dust samples to Earth from an encounter with the comet Wild-2 and will now fly by comet Tempel-1 to observe the crater left over from the DEEP IMPACT mission.

On July 4, 2005, DEEP IMPACT’s high-speed copper projectile slammed into the surface of Tempel-1 leaving a crater and excavating fresh material from beneath the comet’s surface. DEEP IMPACT then observed the fresh ejecta as it flew by the comet at a high rate of speed, but unfortunately, had a very limited view of the crater which was obscured by dust.

STARDUST-NExT is due to reach Tempel-1 in 2011 in which time the dust cloud will have cleared, allowing scientists an unprecedented view beneath the comet’s surface. The encounter will occur very close to one “comet year”  (one orbit of Tempel-1 around the sun) since the DEEP IMPACT collision and scientists will observe changes to the comet’s surface which may have resulted from solar heating, landslides or shifting of material, or impacts by other small objects. 

The Stardust-NExT mission will also offer a unique opportunity to compare particle analysis from two comets, Wild 2 and Tempel-1, taken with the same instruments -- and to compare two observations of a single comet, Tempel-1, taken before and after a single orbit around the sun. It will also allow the correlation between the two spacecraft’s instruments to further help refine the original data obtained by each individual spacecraft. Recycling STARDUST to perform this mission required creative thinking, planning and is a wonderful example of engineering versatility, but is also a prime example of using an existing resource for very little cost. DEEP IMPACT has also been recycled to perform the <link> EPOXI mission to study extra-solar planets and the nucleus of comet Hartley-2.

Comets and their asteroid kin are the leftover building blocks of planets, and might have contributed water and organic material to the ancient Earth, aiding the start of life. By observing comets, scientists can start to understand more about the formation and evolution of the solar system and how life came to exist on Earth.

Joseph Veverka of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., is STARDUST-NExT's principal investigator.