NASA'sStardust spacecraft is set to rendezvous with a comet on Jan. 2, and nowastronomers have gotten their first look at the icy object.
The roboticprobe photographed comet Wild 2 (pronounced Vilt-2) from 15.5 million miles (25million kilometers) away. The image, the first of many comet portraits it willtake over the next four weeks, will aid Stardust's navigators and scientists asthey plot their final trajectory toward the flyby. The first of several courseadjustments is slated for Wednesday.
"Our jobis 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," saidProject Manager Tom Duxbury at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The plan is tocome within 188 miles (300 kilometers) of Wild 2. "By finding the comet asearly and as far away as we did, the complexity of our operations leading up toencounter just dropped drastically."
The imagedata was collected Nov. 13 and the picture was released yesterday.
"When Ifirst looked at the picture I didn't believe it," said mission navigatorShyam Bhaskaran. "We were not expecting to observe the comet for at leastanother two weeks. But there it was, very close to where we thought it wouldbe."
Stardust hasalso collected space dust and will snag more particles as if flies past thecomet. It will return the samples to Earth in January 2006 when it makes a softlanding at the U.S. Air Force Utah Test and Training Range. [More about the Mission]