LOS ANGELES -- It's not exactly young love, but some might find it romantic. On Valentine's Day, an aging lothario that has been flitting from beauty to beauty through the solar system will make his final stop, taking pictures of a battered dowager to send to the folks back home before disappearing forever.
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.