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The Stardust Mission is the First of Its Kind

Stardust 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 Moon.

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The Stardust spacecraft was launched on Feb. 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.

Crayons lay unmelting on top of a piece of aerogel as a blowtorch is applied underneath
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 conducted.

  • University of Chicago provided the Navigation Camera.

  • Stardust Mission Web site: