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Protecting Stardust: NASA Ames and the Heat Shield
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Stardust Animation

VO: In 1999, NASA launched Stardust, a mission with a bold objective . . . intercept the comet Wild-2 at high speed and collect samples of material left over from the formation of the solar system.

Sandford Research Lab

VO: Scott Sandford, a research astrophysicist with the NASA Ames Research Center, was one of the original team members to propose capturing dust from a comet and bringing it back to Earth. These samples could lead to a better understanding of how life originated on our planet.

Scott Sandford Research Astrophysicist, NASA Ames Research Center

We think comets are repositories of the starting material from which everything else in solar system was made . . . so these samples will give us unique insights into exactly what the solar system was made from.

Stardust Animation

VO: The mission requirements were daunting. Stardust would orbit the sun 3 times over a 7-year period, fly through the dusty tail of a the comet, and travel almost 3 billion miles before plunging into the Earth’s atmosphere at 28,600 miles per hour . . . faster than any other man-made object.

Stardust Reentry Animation

VO: In order to ensure a successful return, researchers at NASA Ames were posed a challenging problem: what lightweight heat-shield material would be able to withstand the extreme temperatures on this high-speed re-entry?

Arc Jet

VO: The Thermal Protection Systems Division at NASA Ames believed they had the solution. One of the materials they had developed and tested in their Arc Jet facility was promising.

George Raiche Research Scientist, NASA Ames Research Center

The material that we developed here at Ames Research Center, called PICA, is just exactly what we needed.

VO: After testing, PICA was selected as the primary thermal protection system for Stardust.


VO: On February 7, 1999, Stardust lifted off on its long journey. Five years later, on January 2, 2004, it successfully caught up with Wild-2 and flew within 150 miles of the nucleus, collecting particles and snapping detailed photographs of the comet’s pockmarked surface. The next step was to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere and survive a blistering 80-mile plunge that would destroy any other object its size.

Reentry Animation

VO: The reentry profile over Northern California and Nevada presented a unique chance for scientists to observe the event. Spectral Data and video could be captured, allowing real performance to be compared against test simulations.

George Raiche

Until you actually fly the vehicle and . . . see what it looks like . . . it’s hard to get this engineering data any other way. It really is the final test of how good our design tools are.

DC-8 Stardust Reentry Observation Campaign

VO: In order to get the data the Ames’ scientists needed, NASA’s DC-8 Airborne Laboratory was equipped with a dozen cameras and sensors. These instruments would observe and record the re-entry in the visual, infrared and near-ultraviolet wavelengths.

George Raiche

There’s a lot riding on Stardust. It’s not just the science return. It’s really our ability to design and fly these vehicles at these kinds of speeds.

DC-8 Reentry Video

NAT SOT countdown… 3 – 2 – 1 – Rapid brighting

VO: At 1:57 AM, right on time, Stardust returned home and became visible as it entered the atmosphere.

NAT SOT of Researchers

VO: These images of the re-entry will help scientists design heat shields for future spacecraft returning from the Moon, Mars, and beyond.


VO: After a gentle landing in the Utah desert, Scott Sanford and the science team rushed to the site to collect the Capsule and its cargo. The heat shield had performed flawlessly.

VO: It was then transported to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, where scientists announced they had captured thousands of comet dust grains – far beyond their expectations.

VO: Now Scott Sandford and 180 other scientists will spend years unlocking secrets from the formation of our solar system . . . and perhaps the origin of life on Earth.

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