From The "JPL Universe"
January 8, 1999
Stardust Readies For February Launch
By MARY BETH MURRILL
The Stardust Project is now buttoning up its spacecraft for a Feb. 6 launch
on a Delta II rocket from Cape Canaveral, Fla. "Stardusters," as the project
personnel call themselves, spent the last year assembling and testing
spacecraft components and materials at JPL, at Lockheed Martin Astronautics
in Denver, where the spacecraft was built, and at the Kennedy Space Center
in Florida. The project maintained its schedule and budget throughout the
Stardust's target is Comet Wild-2 (pronounced "VILT-2") - a "fresh" comet
which just 24 years ago was deflected by Jupiter's gravity from its previous
home in an orbit lying much farther out in the solar system. Having spent
most of the solar system's history in the coldest, most distant reaches of
the solar system, Wild-2 represents a well-preserved example of the
fundamental building blocks out of which formed our solar system and
everything in it.
To collect comet samples, Stardust will use a high-tech sieve made of a
special silicon-based material called aerogel, an exotic, lightweight
transparent silica gel that looks like solid smoke and holds the title of
being the lowest density solid material in the world. Embedded in the
aerogel, the particles will be preserved inside the cone-shaped return
capsule that the Stardust spacecraft will later target and release for
reentry into Earth's atmosphere.
One major highlight of the past year was the successful drop test of the
Stardust sample return capsule at the the U.S. Army's Dugway Proving Grounds
at the Utah Test and Training Range near Salt Lake City. The capsule swung
gently beneath its parachute after being dropped from a balloon floating at
about 3,960 meters (13,000 feet) altitude. Project engineers said the soft
landing demonstrated that the return capsule can successfully deliver comet
and interstellar dust samples at the mission's end in 2006.
An educators conference was hosted by the project as a key element of its
outreach emphasis. "Our participation in the JPL community open house,
involvement with the release of the Paramount picture 'Deep Impact' and
interaction through the project's education partners at Omniplex, the Jason
Foundation, and the Challenger Centers got millions of students involved
with Stardust," said Project Manager Dr. Kenneth Atkins.
More than 1.5 million names were collected and etched onto silicon chips
mounted and flown on Stardust.
A milestone was reached as the mission's environmental assessment process
was successfully completed.
The cometary and interstellar dust analyzer instrument, provided by Germany,
was delivered on time, and the flight system completed fabrication and test
in Denver and was shipped on time to Kennedy Space Center. All stages of
Boeing's Delta II launch vehicle arrived and began integration at KSC, said
Atkins, and pre-launch operations have proceeded smoothly.