Image: Tempel 1
NASA / JPL-Caltech / Cornell
Features on Comet Tempel 1 stand out prominently in this image, captured during the Stardust-NExT probe's flyby on Monday. The region between the two central circular features is thought to be the place where the Deep Impact mission's impactor hit the comet in 2005.
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updated 2/16/2011 12:09:20 AM ET 2011-02-16T05:09:20

NASA's recycled Stardust spacecraft flew past Comet Tempel 1 late Monday, snapping photos of the site where a different probe crashed into the icy surface nearly six years ago.

Before Stardust encountered Tempel 1, the comet was visited once before, in July 2005, when NASA's Deep Impact spacecraft plunged a small probe into the icy surface to determine the comet's composition.

The images from Monday's Stardust flyby identify the Deep Impact crash site, giving scientists the unique ability to identify changes on the surface of Tempel 1 in the years between the two missions.

Crater revealed
"We do have a comparison of the Deep Impact area in 2005 and 2011, and it does show an impact crater," Joe Veverka, Stardust-NExT principal investigator at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., said during a news briefing on Tuesday. "Erosion on the scale of 20 to 30 meters of material has occurred in the five or six years since we took the first picture. We are seeing a change, but we have to spend time quantifying the changes and understanding what they mean."

The crater is about 492 feet (150 meters) across, and from the images, the scientists can see where debris from the impact came up and fell back to the surface.

"One of the bottom-line messages is that the surface of the comet where we hit is very weak — it's fragile," said Pete Schultz, Stardust-NExT co-investigator at Brown University in Providence, R.I.

Stardust's rendezvous with Comet Tempel 1 brought the probe to within 110 miles (178 kilometers) of the icy body at its closest approach, which occurred at 11:40 p.m. ET Monday. As the Stardust spacecraft trekked past, it snapped 72 high-resolution photos of the icy comet.

Comet Tempel 1 is 3.7 miles (6 kilometers) wide, and makes one orbit around the sun every five and a half years. Monday's flyby, part of the Stardust-NExT mission, will allow scientists to examine how much the comet has changed since the Deep Impact encounter.

"This is exciting for us, it's the first time we've ever had the opportunity to visit a comet twice," said Tim Larson, Stardust-NExT project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Minor glitch
The first images released from the flyby showed Comet Tempel 1 from a distance of about 1,600 miles (2,575 kilometers). These pictures were the first ones taken by the spacecraft as it approached the comet.

Image: Two images of Tempel 1
NASA via AFP - Getty Images
These images show the area affected by the impactor released by NASA's Deep Impact spacecraft in July 2005. On the left, the image from Deep Impact shows a dark mound about 50 meters (160 feet) in size. It is inside a yellow circle that shows the area hit by Deep Impact's impactor.The image on the right, newly obtained by NASA's Stardust spacecraft, shows that the impactor erased that dark mound and flattened the area. The outer circle annotated on the right-hand image shows the outer rim of the crater, and the inner circle shows the crater floor.

Mission scientists had hoped that the initial set of photos beamed back to Earth would be five images from Stardust's closest approach, but a minor glitch caused the probe to send the images in chronological order instead.

"It did not jeopardize data onboard," Larson said. "Everything was safely stored in memory and was ready to be sent down. We just had to wait a little longer."

Researchers are also hoping to turn the Stardust-NExT data into a map of Tempel 1's surface. The spacecraft took pictures of many of the same areas previously seen by the Deep Impact probe, but Stardust was also able to image new terrain, and will continue to do so as it travels away from the comet.

As Stardust flew by the comet, the spacecraft encountered the comet's veil of gas and dust. Stardust is equipped with sensors that can detect when the spacecraft is hit by dust particles from Tempel 1.

"Stardust went through this cloud of gas and dust through the comet and had a dozen impacts on the front leading edge of the spacecraft," said Don Brownlee, Stardust-NExT co-investigator from the University of Washington in Seattle.

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Scientists found that comets don't spew material in a uniform way. Instead, the material comes out in intermittent bursts and puffs. Analysis of Stardust's data could help scientists understand more about how comets form, and how these primordial objects send gas and dust into space.

1,000 percent successful
Overall, the Stardust mission managers declared the flyby an overwhelming success.

"We're tremendously happy," Veverka said. "If you ask me, was this mission 100 percent successful in terms of science? No, it was 1,000 percent successful."

The comet-chasing Stardust spacecraft has spent 12 years in space and has traveled more than 3.5 billion miles (5.7 billion kilometers) during that time. In 2004, the probe visited Comet Wild 2 and collected samples in a small container that was later returned to Earth.

After Stardust's rendezvous with Comet Wild 2, NASA repurposed the spacecraft to visit Tempel 1, and renamed the mission Stardust-NExT, for New Exploration of Tempel.

Monday's encounter will likely be the final mission for Stardust, since the spacecraft used up most of its remaining fuel to catch up to Comet Tempel 1, researchers said.

You can follow Space.com staff writer Denise Chow on Twitter: @denisechow.

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Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

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  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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