Late last night NASA’s probe Stardust-NExT had a close encounter with Comet Tempel 1, and took 70-some-odd pictures as it went by. Due to bandwidth as well as the limited speed of light, the images arrived at Earth around 12:45am Pacific Time – and then had to go through basic processing by the Science team.
There will be more, better, prettier images later on this morning. I’ll add to this post sometime after I wake up in the Seattle morning to make sure you see those. Meanwhile here is  where they reside.
Although there are many things to observe at Comet Tempel 1, the part I am most interested in is the before-and-after of the comet’s trip around the Sun. We already have some data of before and after the Deep Impact crash, but what changes about a comet when it passes close to our favorite star? Deep Impact’s observations are as Tempel 1 approaches the Sun, and Stardust-NExT saw it on the other side, after it passed by.We know comets lose a good amount of material – so what will we see when the pictures come back? How different will Tempel 1 look?
Tempel 1 – Deep Impact
Back in July 2005 NASA’s mission Deep Impact sent an impacting probe to crash into Comet Tempel 1. According to JPL’s recent news release summing up the mission:
Scientists were surprised the cloud was composed of a fine, powdery material, not the expected water, ice, and dirt. The spacecraft did find the first evidence of surface ice on the surface of a comet instead of just inside a comet.
Stardust and Stardust NExT
Stardust was masterminded by one of our own local astronomy celebrities here in Seattle, Dr. Don Brownlee. Don’s a good speaker especially about Stardust, so if you have a chance to hear a lecture by him I’d go to it.
Stardust’s original mission was to collect particles from a the tail of Comet Wild 2 in what was effectively a tennis racket filled with aerogel. They did this in January of 2004. On the second side of the tennis racket collector it gathered a few particles of interstellar dust.
From a press release in 2007  about the findings in the comet tail particles:
They do contain some stardust grains from other stars but the majority of solids are solar system materials that appear to have formed over a very broad range of solar distances and perhaps over an extended time range. Comet Wild 2 is a collection of materials that probably came from all regions of the young solar system and thus it has turned out to be wonderful “time capsule”.
Deep Impact 
~ A l i c e !