Posted by: soniahs | February 14, 2011

Once More, With Feeling: a Valentine’s Day Encounter in Space

In 2005, NASA’s Deep Impact spacecraft (named before the 1998 movie) visited comet Tempel 1 for a peek at what it was made out of. When the two made their celestial rendezvous, the spacecraft fired a projectile into the comet, sending up a huge cloud of dust and ice and revealing what was happening beneath the comet’s surface. Their encounter was like two ships passing in the night: Deep Impact went on to visit another comet before running out of fuel, and Tempel 1 continued in its lonely journey around the sun.

How much impact did Deep Impact's visit really have on Tempel 1? (Image: NASA)

Tonight, Tempel 1’s long, lonely journey will be livened up with another date with a NASA spacecraft- just in time for Valentine’s Day! This time, the spacecraft is the much more poetically named Stardust, an explorer which has visited several other comets and even sent comet samples back to Earth.

Will Stardust and Tempel 1 enjoy their brief encounter? (Image: NASA/JPL)

Stardust’s meeting with Tempel 1 will be much less physical than the hurried Deep Impact bump. Stardust and Tempel 1 will gracefully pass each other by, while the spacecraft takes photos of Tempel 1’s surface. How has Tempel 1 aged in the past six years? Does it remember Deep Impact at all, or has its celestial slingshot past the sun erased any traces of their brief encounter so long ago? Hopefully, tonight’s Stardust meeting will answer some of these questions.

Oh, and like any dating show on reality TV (“Date with a Comet”, anyone?) their encounter will be televised! Check out NASA TV at 11:30 pm EST tonight for the down and dirty. Don’t expect a funky soundtrack or edited-in catfight between Deep Impact or Stardust, though- this footage will be strictly uncut and unedited.

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