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The Celebrity Comet

Comet Tempel 1 has received more attention than any other comet in the universe—as far as we know!

On July 4, 2005, a spacecraft named Deep Impact released an 820 - pound probe right into its path - on purpose. The impact made a crater on the comet's surface and sent a plume of comet dust into space. Meanwhile, the Deep Impact flyby spacecraft took pictures from below. Other instruments studied the dust plume to figure out what the comet was made of. But there was so much dust the spacecraft couldn't see the crater the impactor had left.

Too bad.

But wait! Another spacecraft, called Stardust, had finished its mission at another comet, called Wild 2. Stardust still had lots of pep and no place to go.

"Let's put Stardust back to work," the NASA scientists said. So they planned another mission for Stardust, now called Stardust-NExT (for New Exploration of Tempel 1). It would have another look at Comet Tempel 1, which had finished its trip around the Sun since its meeting with Deep Impact.

So, on February 14, 2011, NASA again met Comet Tempel 1. By this time, Tempel 1 was a little older and a little more "worn out." Like all comets, when it was closest to the Sun in its orbit, it had warmed up, and some of its surface had evaporated, creating the comet's coma and tail.

Stardust-NExT found the 500-foot crater left by Deep Impact. Scientists are studying the crater's rim to see if it's a little worn down. The blasted out material had settled into a mound in the center of the crater. Other formations had also changed. Scientists are studying the information from the two missions to Comet Tempel 1. What else will they discover about comets?

The Space Place has lots of fun facts, games, and puzzles about comets and NASA's comet missions. Go to spaceplace.nasa.gov and enter "comets" in the "Find it @ Space Place" field.

Comet Tempel 1 as seen by Deep Impact (left) on July 4, 2005, and Stardust-NeXT (right) on February 14, 2011. The dashed lines point to the same two craters. (The Deep Impact crater is just above the bottom of the two large craters.)

This article was written by Trudy E. Bell and Diane K. Fisher. It was provided courtesy of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.


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