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STARDUST: The Risk Factor

The idea of collecting micro-particles from our solar system was a concept, Drs. Donald Brownlee from the University of Washington and Peter Tsou from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) have been working on since the early 1980's. Awarded in 1994, Stardust personnel began designing and building this historic mission to rendezvous with a comet and return particles back to Earth almost seven years after its launch.
Graphic of Stardust's trajectory On January 15, 2006 after traveling approximately 2.9 billion miles, the 101-pound sample return capsule (SRC) will jettison back to Earth for a dramatic night return. The sample return capsule will be released on a straight entry, descent, and landing path to the planned landing ellipse (or footprint) in the Utah Test and Training Range just outside of Salt Lake City.

In 2004, Genesis, a sister mission of Stardust accomplished this similar return concept by jettisoning a SRC four-times the mass of Stardust, marking it as the first NASA sample return mission since Apollo in December 1972. Due to a g-trigger based deployment circuit having been designed incorrectly, Genesis' SRC parafoil did not deploy resulting in a hard-landing. Despite the hard-landing it is expected that Genesis will recovery most of its primary science data.

Thomas Duxbury, the Stardust Project Manager said, "As we know, space exploration is difficult, pushing the boundaries of technology and performing feats never attempted before. Stardust has had a tremendously successful 7-year flight already, encountering the asteroid Annefrank and surviving flying through the coma of comet Wild 2. The successes during these flybys were unprecedented and the data already returned has revolutionized our thoughts on comets. Our last feat will be to land in the desert of Utah and recover the cometary dust samples captured during the Wild 2 flyby. While expecting a soft landing we are preparing for a hard landing knowing that, even under this condition, we expect to recovery the cometary samples for mission success. We now eagerly await the delivery of our return capsule to Utah Test and Training Range to see if it were sent via normal or express mail."

Photo of Stardust Navigation Team Members Stardust is returning to what was once part of the Great Salt Lake (now referred to the Old Salt lake). This open area is now shared by the U. S. Army and U.S. Air Force and is used primarily as a test and training range. In order to ensure safety of base personnel and citizens in surrounding areas, Stardust works landing probabilities within the landing ellipse and possibility of the SRC returning into a populated area. These calculations are done regardless of whether an area is occupied by millions or one.

All NASA missions are required to conduct extensive testing before launch. Many of the instruments are individually tested in the environment that spacecraft engineers expect they will encounter. The entire spacecraft is put through vibration testing to ensure it is able to survive the g-forces at the time of launch aboard Boeing's Delta 2 rocket.

"It's a very similar concept to if someone were to sky dive," says Mission Systems Manger, Edward Hirst. "Imagine packing your recently used parachute, putting it on the shelf for seven years and then picking it up expecting it to work after storing it for that long. You need to have the confidence that your flight plan was and is still valid, your equipment was packed properly and will still be in working order as when it was last checked."

Stardust personnel have begun the task of double-checking all data, mission concepts, and re-evaluating previous testing to ensure maximum success. On January 15, 2006, the Stardust team will have every expectation that its our efforts will pay off and that the sample return capsule will return to Earth as planned. The excitement and anticipation from all Stardust personnel, mission partners, and science team is apparent. Through the numerous educators, museums and planetariums, and other outreach partners - all eyes will be on Stardust less than a year from now.


Last updated January 22, 2005
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