Stardust is the first U.S. space mission dedicated
solely to the exploration of a comet, and the
first robotic mission designed to return extraterrestrial
material from outside the orbit of the Moon.
The Stardust spacecraft was launched on February
7, 1999, from Cape Canaveral Air Station, Florida,
aboard a Delta II rocket. The primary goal of
Stardust is to collect dust and carbon-based samples
during its closest encounter with Comet Wild 2
- pronounced "Vilt 2" after the name
of its Swiss discoverer - is a rendezvous scheduled
to take place in January 2004, after nearly four
years of space travel.
Additionally, the Stardust spacecraft will bring
back samples of interstellar dust, including recently
discovered dust streaming into our Solar System
from the direction of Sagittarius. These materials
are believed to consist of ancient pre-solar interstellar
grains and nebular that include remnants from
the formation of the Solar System. Analysis of
such fascinating celestial specks is expected
to yield important insights into the evolution
of the Sun its planets and possibly even the origin
of life itself.
In order to meet up with comet Wild 2, the spacecraft
will make three loops around the Sun. On the second
loop, its trajectory will intersect the comet.
During the meeting, Stardust will perform a variety
of tasks including reporting counts of comet particles
encountered by the spacecraft with the Dust Flux
Monitor, and real-time analyses of the compositions
of these particles and volatiles taken by the
Comet and Interstellar Dust Analyzer (CIDA). Using
a substance called aerogel, Stardust will capture
these samples and store them for safe keep on
its long journey back to Earth. This silica-based,
material has been inserted within the Aerogel
Collector Grid, which is similar to a large tennis
racket. Not until January 2006, will Stardust
and its precise cargo return by parachuting a
reentry capsule weighing approximately 125 pounds
to the Earth's surface.
Stardust is the fourth NASA Discovery mission
to be chosen and follows on the heels of Mars
Pathfinder, the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous
(NEAR) mission, and the Lunar Prospector mission.
The Discovery Program, is an ongoing program that is intended
to offer the scientific community opportunities
to accomplish frequent, high quality scientificinvestigations
using innovative and efficient management approaches.
It seeks to keep performance high and expenses
low by using new technologies and strict cost
Stardust is managed for NASA's Space Science Division by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a division of the
California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Stardust is a collaborative partnership between the
University of Washington, Lockheed Martin Astronautics and JPL/Caltech. The principal investigator, Dr. Donald
Brownlee of the University of Washington leads a global team of scientists worldwide.
|Last updated November 9, 2009