Project DescriptionStardust is the first U.S. space mission dedicated solely to the
exploration of a comet, and the first robotic mission designed
to return extraterrestrial material from outside the orbit of
The Stardust spacecraft was launched on February 7, 1999, from
Cape Canaveral Air Station, Florida, aboard a Delta II
rocket. The primary goal of Stardust is to collect dust and
carbon-based samples during its closest encounter with Comet
Wild 2 - pronounced "Vilt 2" after the name of its Swiss
discoverer - is a rendezvous scheduled to take place in January
2004, after nearly four years of space travel.
Additionally, the Stardust spacecraft will bring back samples of
interstellar dust, including recently discovered dust streaming
into our Solar System from the direction of Sagittarius. These
materials are believed to consist of ancient pre-solar
interstellar grains and nebular that include remnants from the
formation of the Solar System. Analysis of such fascinating
celestial specks is expected to yield important insights into
the evolution of the Sun its planets and possibly even the
origin of life itself.
In order to meet up with comet Wild 2, the spacecraft will make
three loops around the Sun. On the second loop, its trajectory
will intersect the comet. During the meeting, Stardust will
perform a variety of tasks including reporting counts of comet
particles encountered by the spacecraft with the Dust Flux
Monitor, and real-time analyses of the compositions of these
particles and volatiles taken by the Comet and Interstellar Dust
Analyzer (CIDA). Using a substance called aerogel, Stardust will
capture these samples and store them for safe keep on its long
journey back to Earth. This silica-based, material has been
inserted within the Aerogel Collector Grid, which is similar to
a large tennis racket. Not until January 2006, will Stardust and
its precise cargo return by parachuting a reentry capsule
weighing approximately 125 pounds to the Earth's surface.
Stardust is the fourth NASA Discovery mission to be chosen and
follows on the heels of Mars Pathfinder, the Near Earth Asteroid
Rendezvous (NEAR) mission, and the Lunar Prospector
mission. Discovery is an ongoing program that is intended to
offer the scientific community opportunities to accomplish
frequent, high quality scientific investigations using
innovative and efficient management approaches. It seeks to keep
performance high and expenses low by using new technologies and
strict cost caps.
The Stardust Mission is a collaborative effort between NASA,
university and industry partners:
The Principal Investigator is Dr. Donald E. Brownlee of the
University of Washington, well known for his discovery of cosmic
particles in the stratosphere known as Brownlee Particles. He
also co-authored the bestseller Rare Earth : Why Complex Life Is
Uncommon, which puts forward a hypothesis predicting that
simple, microbial life will be widespread in the universe, while
complex animal or plant life will be extremely rare.
Dr. Peter Tsou of the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL), innovator in
aerogel technology serves as Deputy Investigator.
The contractor for the Stardust spacecraft is Lockheed Martin
Astronautics, Denver, Colorado.
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory has an experienced project
management team, led by Thomas C. Duxbury. In addition, JPL
provided the optical navigation camera.
The Max Planck Institute (MPI) of Germany provided the real-time
dust composition analyzer for the spacecraft.
Ames Research Center provided the heat shield.
Johnson Space Center will provide the planetary materials
curatorial facility where the samples can be preserved and tests
University of Chicago provided the Navigation Camera.
For more information,
link to the STARDUST main page at http://stardust.jpl.nasa.gov/
[Summary provided by NASA]