Saturday, April 9, 2011

Tempel 1 flyby tonight; what's not to love? 02.14.11

NASA has cooked up the perfect Valentine’s Day treat for sky watchers everywhere: a flyby of comet Tempel 1.  Talk about lonely hearts—Tempel 1 only comes around every 5 ½ years!

Image credit: NASA.
At around 11:56 EST tonight, the Stardust-NExT probe will fly within 124 miles of Tempel 1 in an attempt to snap photographs of the ball of ice and rock as it hurtles through space. Tempel 1 orbits the sun, so directing a probe to get close enough to the comet to take some quality photos without being put in danger is proving to be a great challenge, but scientists at NASA are confident the probe will rendezvous with its fleeting target just in time as a last-minute Valentine’s Day treat.  “Encountering something as small and fast as a comet in the vastness of space is always a challenge, but we are very pleased with how things are setting up for our Valentine’s Day flyby,” said Joe Veverka, Cornell University researcher and principal investigator for the mission.

Tempel 1 was visited last summer by NASA’s Deep Impact mission and had part of the comet blasted off by one of the probe’s components in an effort to get a glimpse of Tempel 1’s inner layers. At less than 5 miles in diameter, Tempel 1 is an extremely small target, barely large enough to create any sort of tail as it travels, so hitting it in the first place was literally a long shot. Out of all the calculations that went into hurling a projectile the size of a refrigerator (that weighed in excess of two tons) at the speeding comet, one was not quite factored in: things that go “boom” usually leave a “pouf!” There was a magnificent dust cloud that resulted from the more than 20,000 miles per hour collision, and it obliterated any chances of catching even one clear photograph of the resulting crater at the time. NASA did have a camera on the projectile it sent crashing into Tempel 1, though, so it was able to snap a few mug shots before the camera was smashed to pieces in the collision. We have included one here, below.
Image credit: NASA.
NASA hopes that this time, now that Tempel 1 has hurried along and cleared away from some of the dust, some good photos can be had of its new crater that will tell the scientists more about comets in general.

In honor of all of the excitement gendered by the mission, NASA has set up a full itinerary of press events, including live coverage of the flyby on NASA television, which can all be accessed on NASA’s main website, They have also created a unique way to send a Valentine to that special someone in your life (and show just how awesome you think comets are at the same time!) with their “I <3 Comets” campaign. Visit to join in on all the fun.

You can forget trying to spot Tempel 1 on your own, though. Even the Hubble telescope has a difficult time of it trying to catch a glimpse of this comet, so at the most, all you would ever see with a powerful backyard telescope is a miniscule dot. It would be far better to sit inside and just watch NASA’s coverage on the television or webpage from the comfort of your own home. Who says sky watching always means you have to be outside?

So, snuggle up with that special someone and catch some late-night coverage of the comet. For the person who wants to opt out of the usual flowers and candy, this is certainly no typical way to celebrate! On that note, we at Thronateeska Heritage Center wish you a wonderful Valentine’s Day!

Credit: NASA JPL.

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