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Stardust Rides the Comet
Comets, although very small in size in relation to our planets, hold the mysteries of the beginning and evolution of our Solar System.

NASA launched the Stardust spacecraft from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on February 7, 1999. Its flyby of comet Wild 2 is scheduled for January 2, 2004, after almost four years in space.

Stardust approaching comet Wild 2 simulation Stardust has already located and successfully photographed the comet. The sighting took place last month, two weeks earlier than expected and NASA scientists are ecstatic. According to Project Manager Tom Duxbury, finding Wild 2 this early drastically lessens the complexity of navigating the January encounter.

Comet Wild 2 (pronounced "Vilt 2"), was named for its Swiss discoverer Paul Wild.

The spacecraft's camera saw stars 1,500 times dimmer than a human eye can see on a clear night, and was able to photograph the comet, 15 and a half million miles away. Additional images taken over the next four weeks will increase Stardust's success to rendezvous with the comet.

Stardust is the first spacecraft with the ability to retrieve samples obtained in deep space and return them to Earth for research. Aerogel, a silica-based material contained in a tennis racket shaped grid, was specially developed to capture the comet material without damage.

The Stardust Sample Return Capsule (SRC) is expected to reach Earth with its precious payload in January 2006. The spacecraft will be positioned for release of the SRC which will then free-fall into the Earth's atmosphere. To slow its descent after re-entry a specially-built parachute will deploy.

SRC entry description The capsule will land at the U.S. Air Force Utah Test and Training Range (UTTR) where a ground-handling team will be eagerly awaiting its arrival.

At right is a detailed schematic of Stardust releasing the SRC and each phase in its descent before reaching the UTTR landing site. View large image

Stardust is a joint effort between NASA, several universities and industry partners and is fourth in a series of NASA Discovery missions to be chosen using high performance technology with an economical use of resources.

For further information visit:
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and John F. Kennedy Space Center