Astronomy Picture of the Day

Discover the cosmos! Each day a different image or photograph of our fascinating universe is featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.

2004 January 19
See Explanation.  Clicking on the picture will download
 the highest resolution version available.

STARDUST Flyby of Comet Wild 2

Explanation: Flying past a comet nucleus is dangerous. On January 2, the robot spacecraft STARDUST became one of the first to plow through the surrounding cloud of dust and grit to photograph the very heart of a comet. Pictured above is a short movie of the encounter showing unprecedented surface details of the icy center of Comet Wild 2. The STARDUST camera pivoted to remain pointed at the nucleus as the spacecraft passed. Heavily shielded from the onslaught of cometary debris, STARDUST survived the beating in excellent condition. Surprisingly, although the nucleus appeared to be solid, the the surrounding coma appeared to be highly fragmented into several distinct streams of particles. Souvenirs captured by the spacecraft will be ejected as the spacecraft passes the Earth in January 2006.

Tomorrow's picture: Cluster Conundrum

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