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Stardust - The Days Dwindle Down!
(Happy Sixth Birthday!)

Photo of Ken Atkins By Dr. Kenneth L. Atkins
Former Stardust Project Manager
February 7, 2005

Stardust rode the thunder of its Delta rocket into space on a clear, warm Florida afternoon, February 7, 1999. It's hard to imagine that her sixth flight birthday is upon us. The "landfall" at comet Wild 2 is now in her wake and no longer unknown. The comet's sublimation pits, the vaulting spires and scarps are unmasked. The spouts of particles flashing high above the surface have pummeled her shields, been counted in intensity by the Dust Flux Monitor (DFM), analyzed by the Cometary and Interstellar Dust Analyzer (CIDA), and trapped by the Aerogel collector. The face of the comet has graced the front pages of newspapers and its mysteries have been described in the prestigious pages of Science Magazine. A unique new world has burst from the shroud of enigma. A great dawn for the year of discovery... 2004!

Stardust has now turned past the last aphelion and is running before "the wind," gaining speed, as she seems to sense the final leg home is underway. Over the six years in flight, her crew has mastered sailing her on the ocean of deep space. They have met the challenges of being blinded by an unexplained "fog", losing signal at times, nearly foundering in the grasp of a massive solar storm, and navigating the violence of waves of impacting particles hitting the ship's shields as the Aerogel collector hauled some aboard. Yet, precisely, they positioned Stardust to allow for a graceful arc of her camera to make history in advancing human knowledge. Pictures were taken, data and samples were captured, and science has been done. It may have looked easy - but it was not!

Now the precious cargo is safely locked in the hold of the Sample Return Capsule (SRC). The anticipation of the Earth-based "welcoming" party is high. What will the minute essence of actual stardust be like? How will our self-understanding be impacted by peering deep into comet particles representing the state of the solar nebula at the dawn of the solar system? The final chapter remains to be written with the SRC's delivery to safe harbor in January 2006.

And so, the days dwindle down. The haunting strains of the song, Stardust, morph toward September Song. Stardust quietly ghosts toward the drop zone where delivery of the SRC will complete her mission. The homecoming will be not on a warm afternoon like that at the voyage's beginning. It will likely be in the wee hours of a frosty morning in the Utah desert. A large portion of her destiny already accomplished, the final challenge - the SRC's searing plunge through the upper atmosphere, and the welcome deployment of her parachute - waits.

So, the adventure continues. Once more, we are reminded of the risks of voyaging into the unknown, attempting audaciously to know it. Discovery often requires the courage to risk failure.

Stardust is closing on her final scene. Nevertheless, the ship remains "space worthy." The design has proven robust. The voyage has made crew and ship an experienced team. The test has been passed in the arena of spaceflight. During these remaining days, vigilance and resolve will be increased. We have sailed the course from Cape Canaveral through Wild 2 encounter.

Again, I celebrate the spacecraft. I congratulate the crew.

Sail on, Stardust! May the "wind" be fair over Utah! Happy Sixth Birthday!

Last Updated: February 22, 2005
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