NASA's Stardust spacecraft is set to rendezvous with a comet on Jan. 2, and now astronomers have gotten their first look at the icy object.

The robotic probe photographed comet Wild 2 (pronounced Vilt-2) from 15.5 million miles (25 million kilometers) away. The image, the first of many comet portraits it will take over the next four weeks, will aid Stardust's navigators and scientists as they plot their final trajectory toward the flyby. The first of several course adjustments is slated for Wednesday.

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Credit: NASA/JPL

"Our job is to aim a 5 meter (16 foot) long spacecraft at a 5.4 kilometer (3.3 mile) wide comet that is closing on it at six times the speed of a bullet," said Project Manager Tom Duxbury at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The plan is to come within 188 miles (300 kilometers) of Wild 2. "By finding the comet as early and as far away as we did, the complexity of our operations leading up to encounter just dropped drastically."

The image data was collected Nov. 13 and the picture was released yesterday.

"When I first looked at the picture I didn't believe it," said mission navigator Shyam Bhaskaran. "We were not expecting to observe the comet for at least another two weeks. But there it was, very close to where we thought it would be."

Stardust has also collected space dust and will snag more particles as if flies past the comet. It will return the samples to Earth in January 2006 when it makes a soft landing at the U.S. Air Force Utah Test and Training Range. [More about the Mission]