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NASA Facts

National Aeronautics and


Space Administration
Jet Propulsion Laboratory
California Institute of Technology
Pasadena, CA 91109

Stardust Mission to a Comet


NASA’s Stardust mission is sending a spacecraft a recently discovered flow of particles that passes
to fly through the cloud of dust that surrounds the through our solar system from interstellar space. As
nucleus of a comet – and, for the first time ever, col- in the proverbial "from dust to dust," this interstellar
lect cometary material dust represents the ulti-
for return to Earth. mate in recycled mater-
Comets, which peri- ial; it is the stuff from
odically grace our sky which all solid objects
like celestial bottle rock- in the universe are
ets, are thought to hold made, and the state to
many of the original which everything even-
ingredients of the recipe tually returns.
that created the planets Scientists want to
and brought plentiful discover the composi-
water to Earth.
tion of this "stardust" to
They are also rich in determine the history,
carbon-based material, chemistry, physics and
which provided our
mineralogy of nature's
planet with many of the
ready-to-mix molecules most fundamental
that could give rise to building blocks.
life. They may be the Because it would be
oldest, most primitive virtually impossible to
bodies in the solar sys- equip a spacecraft with
tem, a preserved record the most sophisticated
of the original nebula lab instrumentation
that formed the Sun and
needed to analyze such
the planets.
material in space, the
Stardust is the first Stardust spacecraft will
U.S. mission dedicated act as a robotic lab assistant whose job it is pick up
solely to a comet. Its main objective is to capture a and deliver a sample to scientists back on Earth. The
sample from a well-preserved comet called Wild 2 spacecraft will, however, radio back some on-the-spot
(pronounced "Vilt 2"). analytical observations of the comet and interstellar
The spacecraft also collects interstellar dust from dust.
Earth Earth
gravity return
assist 1/15/06
1/15/01
Loop 1
Launch Loops
2/6/99
2&3
Comet Wild-2
orbit
Earth
orbit Interstellar dust
collection
March-May 2000
Comet Wild-2 Interstellar dust
encounter collection
1/2/04 July-December 2002

Interstellar
particle stream

Mission Overview 21,960 kilometers per hour (13,650 miles per hour).
Stardust was launched at 4:04 p.m. EST February While in terrestrial terms such velocity is guaranteed
7, 1999, atop a Delta II rocket from Florida's Cape to smoke any policeman’s radar gun, in cosmic terms
Canaveral Air Station. Its flight path is taking it on such relative speed between spacecraft and comet is
several looping orbits around the Sun. relatively benign, allowing Stardust to collect and
store its deep space cometary dust samples in a pris-
From March through May 2000, Stardust tine a condition as possible.
opened a collector to catch samples of interstellar par-
ticles. On January 15, 2001, the spacecraft flew by An onboard camera will aid in navigating the
Earth to use the planet’s gravity to change the space- spacecraft to the comet's nucleus, permitting the cap-
craft’s path, passing within 6,000 kilometers (3,700 ture of the freshest samples from the heart of the
miles) of Earth’s surface at about 6:15 a.m. EST (3:15 comet.
a.m. PST). The flyby put Stardust on a trajectory that Stardust will document its passage through the
allowed the spacecraft to pass within 3,300 kilometers hailstorm of comet debris with scientific instruments
(2,050 miles) of asteroid Annefrank during the and the navigation camera. On approach to the dust
evening hours of November 1, 2003 (8:50 p.m. PST). cloud, or “coma,” the spacecraft will flip open a ten-
Stardust’s mission planners made the most of this nis-racket-shaped particle catcher filled with a sili-
encounter with the irregularly shaped, 8-kilometer (5- con-based foam called aerogel to capture the comet
mile) diameter asteroid. They gave the spacecraft a particles. Aerogel, the lowest-density material in the
deep space workout, thoroughly testing all the space- world, has enough "give" in it to slow and stop parti-
craft systems that they will employ three years later. cles without altering them too much. After the sam-
On January 2, 2004, the spacecraft will encounter ple has been collected, the aerogel capturing device
comet Wild-2, flying past it at a relative speed of will fold down into a sample return capsule, which
closes like a clamshell to enclose the samples for safe
2
High-gain Aerogel
Solar panels antenna

Sample return
Whipple capsule
shields Thruster module
Comet and interstellar
Launch vehicle
dust analyzer
adapter

delivery to Earth. have highly elliptical orbits that bring them close to
A particle impact mass spectrometer will also the Sun and then swing them back out into deep
obtain in-flight data on the composition of both comet space. They spend most of their existences in a deep
and interstellar dust, especially very fine particles. freeze beyond the orbit of Pluto – far beyond the
The optical navigation camera should provide excel- Sun's dwindling influence, which is why so much of
lent images of the dark mass of the comet's nucleus. their original material is well-preserved.
Other equipment will reveal the distribution in both When a comet approaches within about 700 mil-
time and space of coma dust, and could produce an lion kilometers (about a half billion miles) of the Sun,
estimate of the comet's mass. the surface of the nucleus begins to warm, and mater-
On January 15, 2006, a parachute will set the cap- ial on the comet's nucleus heats and begins to vapor-
sule gently onto the salt flats of the Utah desert for ize. This process, along with the loss of rocky debris
retrieval. The scientifically precious samples can be or other particles that fly off the surface, creates the
studied for decades into the future with ever-improv- cloud around the nucleus called the coma. It is the
ing techniques and analysis technologies, limited only glowing, fuzzy-looking coma that appears as the head
by the number of atoms and molecules of the sample of a comet when one is observed from Earth. A tail
material available. Many types of analyses now per- of luminous debris and another, less apparent, tail of
formed on lunar samples, for example, were not even gases flow millions of miles beyond the head in the
imagined at the time of the Apollo missions to the direction away from the Sun.
Moon. Comet Wild 2 is considered an ideal target for
From Earth to comet to Earth over the course of study because, until recently, it was a long-period
seven years, the spacecraft will have traveled a total comet that rarely ventured close to the Sun. A fateful
of 5.2 billion kilometers (3.2 billion miles). pass near Jupiter and its enormous gravity field in
1974 pulled comet Wild 2 off-course, diverting it onto
Comet Science a tighter orbit that brings it past the Sun more fre-
quently and also closer to Earth's neighborhood.
Comets are small, irregularly shaped bodies com-
Because Wild 2 changed its orbit only recently, it has
posed of a mixture of grains of rock, carbon-based
lost little of its original material when compared with
molecules and frozen gases. Most comets are about
other short-period comets, so it offers some of the
50 percent water ice. Typically ranging in size up to
best-preserved comet samples that can be obtained.
about 10 kilometers (6 miles) in diameter, comets
3
Program Stardust's principal investigator is Dr. Donald
Stardust was competitively selected in the fall of Brownlee of the University of Washington, Seattle.
1995 under NASA’s Discovery Program of low-cost, Dr. Peter Tsou of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory is
highly focused science missions. As a Discovery deputy principal investigator.
mission, Stardust has met a fast development sched- The Stardust mission is managed by the Jet
ule, uses a small Delta launch vehicle, is cost-capped Propulsion Laboratory for NASA’s Office of Space
at less than $200 million, and is the product of a part- Science, Washington, D.C. At NASA Headquarters,
nership involving NASA, academia and industry. Barry Geldzahler is Stardust program executive and
The spacecraft was designed, built and is operated Dr. Thomas Morgan is program scientist.
by Lockheed Martin Astronautics, Denver, Colo. At the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Thomas
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., Duxbury is project manager. Robert Ryan is mission
provided the spacecraft's optical navigation camera, director. JPL is a division of the California Institute
and the Max Planck Institute of Germany provided of Technology in Pasadena.
the real-time dust composition analyzer.
2/03 DCA