Like a potato emerging from the shadows, the icy core of comet Tempel 1 looms into view in a new picture from NASA's Stardust spacecraft released Tuesday.
The image was snapped at 11:39 p.m. ET during a close flyby that brought the office desk-size craft within 110 miles (178 kilometers) of the 3.7-mile-wide (6-kilometer-wide) comet. Stardust took 72 high-resolution pictures during the encounter, 60 of which had been successfully beamed back to Earth as of Tuesday afternoon ET.
The comet and spacecraft are both seasoned pros when it comes to NASA missions. In 2005 Tempel 1 was visited by a NASA probe called Deep Impact, which smashed an 800-pound (363-kilogram) metal slug into the comet's core, or nucleus (see pictures of the comet impact). And in 2004 Stardust collected samples from the comet Wild 2 (pronounced "Vilt 2").
The Stardust-NExT mission involved retargeting Stardust for a Valentine's Day rendezvous with Tempel 1 after the comet had made a complete trip around the sun.
"This is the first time we've ever had the opportunity to visit a comet twice," Stardust-NExT project manager Tim Larson said today during a press briefing.
Tempel 1, he added, "comes as close to the sun as the orbit of Mars, and that's about where we met it last night with the spacecraft."