Stardust spacecraft to get a new look at comet's crater

LOS ANGELES — The Stardust spacecraft, which has already imaged asteroid Annefrank and captured interstellar dust from comet Wild 2, on Monday night will swing by comet Tempel 1. There it will take new pictures of the devastation wrought to the comet by NASA's 2005 Deep Impact mission.

In that historic encounter six years ago, the Deep Impact spacecraft released an 820-pound probe that crashed into Tempel 1 at 23,000 mph, sending a luminous plume of debris into space and allowing earthbound researchers to determine what the comet was made of. There was so much debris, in fact, that the spacecraft could not get a clear look at the impact crater

Now, Stardust will be able to image that crater up close for the first time. Moreover, in the nearly six years since that initial encounter, the comet has completed an orbit around the solar system, passing close to the sun.

"For the first time we'll go back to see what happens to a comet" after it passes close to the sun, said Pete Schultz of Brown University, a scientist for the new mission.

The craft will fly within 124 miles of the comet, taking 72 pictures of the comet with its camera, a spare left over from the Voyager program, the first spacecraft to reach the outer planets.

The encounter is expected to begin about 6:30 p.m. CST Monday and will be televised on NASA TV and on the NASA website.