- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 15, 2011

PASADENA, CALIF. (AP) - A NASA spacecraft flew by a comet half the size of Manhattan for a nighttime rendezvous on Valentine's Day.

Speeding at 24,000 mph, the Stardust craft came within 112 miles of the surface of comet Tempel 1 on Monday.

Scientists and engineers clapped when they received a signal from Stardust confirming that it had snapped six dozen pictures as planned.

The Valentine flyby, which occurred 210 million miles from Earth, is the first time that a comet has been visited up close by two different spacecraft.

Stardust closed in at the comet closer than scientists had calculated. Onboard instruments indicated that the craft was hit by several dust particles.

Since Stardust’s antenna was pointed away from Earth during the encounter, it’ll take several hours for all the images and data to reach the ground.

Scientists plan to pull an all-nighter sifting through the images to compare how the comet’s surface features have changed.

The hardest part was waiting to see “all the goodies that are stored on board” Stardust, said principal investigator Joe Veverka, of Cornell University.

Researchers are interested in studying comets because they could provide clues to how the Sun and planets formed. Comets are thought to contain frozen primordial ingredients that date back to the birth of the solar system some 4.5 billion years ago.

Tempel 1’s love life is like a celestial soap opera.

In 2005, it had a less-than-romantic encounter with another NASA craft dubbed Deep Impact. Instead of flying by Tempel 1, Deep Impact aimed a copper bullet that crashed into the surface and excavated a crater. So much dust and debris streamed out that Deep Impact was unable to see the result of its destructive act.

NASA hopes to get a second chance to glimpse the crater with Stardust’s pass near the Deep Impact site.

Since launching in 1999, Stardust has journeyed 3.5 billion miles. Its original date was not with Tempel 1. In 2004, Stardust visited Wild 2, scooping up microscopic interstellar dust and comet grains in a capsule that was later jettisoned to Earth.

The $300 million mission gave scientists their first collection of comet particles gathered in space.

Since Stardust had plenty of fuel after the Wild 2 encounter, NASA in 2007 decided to recycle the spacecraft for a fling with Tempel 1 for $29 million _ a fraction of the cost it would take to start a mission from scratch.

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