Image: Comet
The image on the right depicts Comet Wild 2 with respect to three stars used by the Stardust for navigation. The image on the left is an enlargement of the region surrounding the comet.

A comet-chasing spacecraft has its quarry in sight, weeks before it is to swoop past the frozen ball of rock and ice to capture samples of its glittering tail for return to Earth.

NASA’s Stardust spacecraft successfully photographed Comet Wild 2 (pronounced Vilt-2) on Nov. 13, or weeks before expected, mission members said Monday. The comet was 15.5 million miles away at the time.

“Christmas came early this year,” said project manager Tom Duxbury at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Stardust will continue to photograph the comet over the next month, leading up to its Jan. 2 flyby of the icy body. The images greatly aid Stardust mission members as they fine-tune the spacecraft’s path as it closes in on Wild 2, NASA said.

During its close encounter, engineers and scientists hope the unmanned probe will fly within 186 miles of the 3.3-mile-wide comet.

During the flyby, scientists hope to collect and trap samples of the dust streaming off the comet. The spacecraft will return to Earth in 2006 to drop off the samples in a parachute-equipped capsule.

The $200 million Stardust mission was launched in 1999.

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