NASA Craft Captures Comet Images

NASA said Saturday it has captured dozens of close-up images of a distant comet that show the frozen ball of rock and ice spewing jets of dust and gas into space.

The Stardust spacecraft (search) took 72 images of the dark nucleus of comet Wild 2 during a derring-do flyby Friday that occurred 242 million miles from Earth.

Scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (search) began poring over the black-and-white images as the pictures and other scientific data reached Earth on Saturday.

Initial analysis of the images revealed at least five and as many as seven jets shooting from the comet, project manager Tom Duxbury said.

The images cover about 40 percent of the surface of Wild 2 (search), which appears pocked with sinkholes formed where scientists believe the comet has lost material through sublimation — solids turning to gas without an intermediate liquid phase.

"We hope to resolve a jet coming right out of one of those vents, those sinkholes," Duxbury said.

NASA (search) said it would release more of the images of the egg-shaped, 3.3-mile diameter comet to the public on Monday or Tuesday.

So far the agency has released a single black-and-white photo of the comet nucleus. It showed what looked like a giant frozen meatball pocked with sinkholes.

The spacecraft swooped within 149 miles of the frozen ball of rock and ice to collect samples from its glittering halo of dust and gas and bring them to Earth.

Stardust recorded two distinct bursts of particles believed spewed by active jets on the surface of Wild 2 (pronounced Vilt-2) as it safely plowed through the gossamer cloud that envelops the comet. The spacecraft also snagged an untold number of the minuscule specks of dust, believed to be primitive leftovers from the formation of our solar system, for later study on Earth.

Stardust was expected to collect less than a thimbleful of dust, which the spacecraft is scheduled to jettison back to Earth when it sweeps past our planet in January 2006.

Duxbury said the canister containing the samples was successfully closed on Friday.

Scientists want to return samples of the dust particles to Earth for study because they represent pristine examples of the building blocks of our solar system dating back 4.6 billion years. They also believe the dust contains many of the organic molecules necessary for life, which comets could have pelted the Earth with eons ago.

Two other cometary missions, one European and one U.S., are expected to be launched this year.