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From The "JPL Universe"
January 8, 1999

Stardust Readies For February Launch


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 year.

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.

Last Updated: November 26, 2003
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