Stardust (spacecraft)

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11000 the density of glass, another silicon-based solid to which it may be compared. When a particle hits the aerogel, it becomes buried in the material, creating a long track, up to 200 times the length of the grain. The aerogel was packed in an aluminium grid and fitted into a Sample Return Capsule (SRC), which was to be released from the spacecraft as it passed Earth in 2006.

To analyze the aerogel for interstellar dust, one million photographs will be needed to image the entirety of the sampled grains. The images will be distributed to home computer users to aid in the study of the data using a program titled, Stardust@home. In April 2014, NASA reported they had recovered seven particles of interstellar dust from the aerogel. [26]

Stardust microchip

Stardust was launched carrying two sets of identical pairs of square 10.16-centimeter (4 in) silicon wafers. Each pair featured engravings of well over one million names of people who participated in the public outreach program by filling out internet forms available in late 1997 and mid-1998. One pair of the microchips was positioned on the spacecraft and the other was attached to the sample return capsule. [1] :24

Mission profile

Launch and trajectory

Animation of Stardust's trajectory from 7 February 1999 to 7 April 2011

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Stardust *
81P/Wild *
Earth *
5535 Annefrank *
Tempel 1 Animation of Stardust trajectory.gif
Animation of Stardust's trajectory from 7 February 1999 to 7 April 2011
  Stardust ·   81P/Wild  ·   Earth  ·   5535 Annefrank  ·   Tempel 1

Stardust was launched at 21:04:15 UTC on 7 February 1999, by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration from Space Launch Complex 17A at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, aboard a Delta II 7426 launch vehicle. The complete burn sequence lasted for 27 minutes bringing the spacecraft into a heliocentric orbit that would bring the spacecraft around the Sun and past Earth for a gravity assist maneuver in 2001, to reach asteroid 5535 Annefrank in 2002 and comet Wild 2 in 2004 at a low flyby velocity of 6.1 km/s. In 2004, the spacecraft performed a course correction that would allow it to pass by Earth a second time in 2006, to release the Sample Return Capsule for a landing in Utah in the Bonneville Salt Flats. [1] :14–22 [6]

During the second encounter with Earth, the Sample Return Capsule was released on Jan 15, 2006. [6] Immediately afterwards, Stardust was put into a "divert maneuver" to avoid entering the atmosphere alongside the capsule. Under twenty kilograms of propellant remained onboard after the maneuver. [6] On 29 January 2006, the spacecraft was put in hibernation mode with only the solar panels and receiver active, in a 3-year heliocentric orbit that would return it to Earth vicinity on 14 January 2009. [6] [27]

A subsequent mission extension was approved on 3 July 2007, to bring the spacecraft back to full operation for a flyby of comet Tempel 1 in 2011. The mission extension was the first to revisit a small Solar System body and used the remaining propellant, signaling the end of the useful life for the spacecraft. [28]

Stardust - Concepcao artistica.jpg
Artist's impression of Stardust at comet Wild 2
NamesDiscovery 4
Mission type Sample return
Operator NASA  / JPL
COSPAR ID 1999-003A
SATCAT no. 25618
Mission durationStardust: 6 years, 11 months, 7 days
NExT: 4 years, 2 months, 7 days
Total: 12 years, 1 month, 17 days
Spacecraft properties
Bus SpaceProbe [1]
Manufacturer Lockheed Martin
University of Washington
Launch mass390.599 kg (861 lb) [2]
Dry mass305.397 kg (673 lb) [2]
DimensionsBus: 1.71 × 0.66 × 0.66 m [1]
(5.6 × 2.16 × 2.16 ft)
Power330  W (Solar array / NiH
Start of mission
Launch date7 February 1999, 21:04:15.238 (1999-02-07UTC21:04:15)  UTC [3]
Rocket Delta II 7426-9.5 #266
Launch site Cape Canaveral SLC-17
Contractor Lockheed Martin Space Systems
End of mission
DeactivatedSpacecraft: 24 March 2011, 23:33 (2011-03-24UTC23:34) UTC [4]
Landing dateCapsule: 15 January 2006, 10:12 UTC [5]
Landing site Utah Test and Training Range
40°21.9′N113°31.25′W / 40.3650°N 113.52083°W / 40.3650; -113.52083
Flyby of Earth
Closest approach15 January 2001, 11:14:28  UTC
Distance6,008 km (3,733 mi)
Timeline of travel [6] [29]
Spacecraft launched at 21:04:15.238 UTC [3]
Stardust Sample Collection test.
Earth gravity assist maneuver
New record in spaceflight set: furthest solar powered object at 2.72  AU. [31]
Flyby encounter with 5535 Annefrank
Flyby encounter with Wild 2
Earth return of sample capsule.
Flyby encounter with Tempel 1.
End of mission.

Encounter with Annefrank

At 04:50:20 UTC on 2 November 2002, Stardust encountered asteroid 5535 Annefrank from a distance of 3,079 km (1,913 mi). [6] The solar phase angle ranged from 130 degrees to 47 degrees during the period of observations. This encounter was used primarily as an engineering test of the spacecraft and ground operations in preparation for the encounter with comet Wild 2 in 2003. [6]

Encounter with Wild 2

At 19:21:28 UTC, on 2 January 2004, Stardust encountered Comet Wild  2 [33] on the sunward side with a relative velocity of 6.1 km/s at a distance of 237 km (147 mi). [6] The original encounter distance was planned to be 150 km (93 mi), but this was changed after a safety review board increased the closest approach distance to minimize the potential for catastrophic dust collisions. [6]

The relative velocity between the comet and the spacecraft was such that the comet actually overtook the spacecraft from behind as they traveled around the Sun. During the encounter, the spacecraft was on the Sunlit side of the nucleus, approaching at a solar phase angle of 70 degrees, reaching a minimum angle of 3 degrees near closest approach and departing at a phase angle of 110 degrees. [6] The AutoNav software was used during the flyby. [34] :11

During the flyby the spacecraft deployed the Sample Collection plate to collect dust grain samples from the coma, and took detailed pictures of the icy nucleus. [35]

New Exploration of Tempel 1 (NExT)

Artist's impression of the Stardust spacecraft performing a burn-to-depletion at the end of the Stardust NExT mission. Stardust20110323-full.jpg
Artist's impression of the Stardust spacecraft performing a burn-to-depletion at the end of the Stardust NExT mission.

On 19 March 2006, Stardust scientists announced that they were considering the possibility of redirecting the spacecraft on a secondary mission to image Comet Tempel 1. The comet was previously the target of the Deep Impact mission in 2005, sending an impactor into the surface. The possibility of this extension could be vital for gathering images of the impact crater which Deep Impact was unsuccessful in capturing due to dust from the impact obscuring the surface.

On 3 July 2007 the mission extension was approved and renamed New Exploration of Tempel 1 (NExT). This investigation would provide the first look at the changes to a comet nucleus produced after a close approach to the Sun. NExT also would extend the mapping of Tempel 1, making it the most mapped comet nucleus to date. This mapping would help address the major questions of comet nucleus geology. The flyby mission was expected to consume almost all of the remaining fuel, signaling the end of the operability of the spacecraft. [28] The AutoNav software (for autonomous navigation) would control the spacecraft for the 30 minutes prior to encounter. [36]

The mission objectives included the following: [36]

Primary objectives

Secondary objectives

Encounter with Tempel 1

At 04:39:10 UTC on 15 February 2011, Stardust-NExT encountered Tempel 1 from a distance of 181 km (112 mi). [7] [8] An estimated 72 images were acquired during the encounter. These showed changes in the terrain and revealed portions of the comet never seen by Deep Impact. [37] The impact site from Deep Impact was also observed, though it was barely visible due to material settling back into the crater. [38]

End of extended mission

On 24 March 2011 at approximately 23:00 UTC, Stardust conducted a burn to consume its remaining fuel. [32] The spacecraft had little fuel left and scientists hoped the data collected would help in the development of a more accurate system for estimating fuel levels on spacecraft. After the data had been collected, no further antenna aiming was possible and the transmitter was switched off. The spacecraft sent an acknowledgement from approximately 312 million km (194 million mi) away in space. [4]

Sample return

Landing capsule as seen by the recovery team Stardust Capsule on Ground.jpg
Landing capsule as seen by the recovery team

On 15 January 2006, at 05:57 UTC, the Sample Return Capsule successfully separated from Stardust. The SRC re-entered the Earth's atmosphere at 09:57 UTC, [39] with a velocity of 12.9 km/s, the fastest reentry speed into Earth's atmosphere ever achieved by a human-made object. [40] The capsule followed a drastic reentry profile, going from a velocity of Mach 36 to subsonic speed within 110 seconds. [41] [ failed verification ] Peak deceleration was 34  g , [42] encountered 40 seconds into the reentry at an altitude of 55 km over Spring Creek, Nevada. [41] The phenolic-impregnated carbon ablator (PICA) heat shield, produced by Fiber Materials Inc., reached a temperature of more than 2,900 °C during this steep reentry. [43] The capsule then parachuted to the ground, finally landing at 10:12 UTC at the Utah Test and Training Range, near the U.S. Army Dugway Proving Ground. [5] [44] The capsule was then transported by military aircraft from Utah to Ellington Air Force Base in Houston, Texas, then transferred by road in an unannounced convoy to the Planetary Materials Curatorial facility at Johnson Space Center in Houston to begin analysis. [6] [45]

Sample processing

Visible dust grains in the aerogel collector Aerogel labtest.jpg
Visible dust grains in the aerogel collector

The sample container was taken to a clean room with a cleanliness factor 100 times that of a hospital operating room to ensure the interstellar and comet dust was not contaminated. [46] Preliminary estimations suggested at least a million  microscopic specks of dust were embedded in the aerogel collector. Ten particles were found to be at least 100  micrometers (0.1 mm) and the largest approximately 1,000 micrometers (1 mm). An estimated 45  interstellar dust impacts were also found on the sample collector, which resided on the back side of the cometary dust collector. Dust grains are being observed and analyzed by a volunteer team through the distributed computing project, Stardust@Home.

In December 2006, seven papers were published in the scientific journal Science , discussing initial details of the sample analysis. Among the findings are: a wide range of organic compounds, including two that contain biologically usable nitrogen; indigenous aliphatic hydrocarbons with longer chain lengths than those observed in the diffuse interstellar medium; abundant amorphous silicates in addition to crystalline silicates such as olivine and pyroxene, proving consistency with the mixing of Solar System and interstellar matter, previously deduced spectroscopically from ground observations; [47] hydrous silicates and carbonate minerals were found to be absent, suggesting a lack of aqueous processing of the cometary dust; limited pure carbon (CHON)[ clarification needed ] was also found in the samples returned; methylamine and ethylamine was found in the aerogel but was not associated with specific particles.

In 2010, Dr. Andrew Westphal announced that Stardust@home volunteer Bruce Hudson found a track (labeled "I1043,1,30") among the many images of the aerogel that may contain an interstellar dust grain. [48] The program allows for any volunteer discoveries to be recognized and named by the volunteer. Hudson named his discovery "Orion". [49]

Stardust@Home certificate Stardust certisfication.png
Stardust@Home certificate

In April 2011, scientists from the University of Arizona discovered evidence for the presence of liquid water in comet Wild 2. They have found iron and copper sulfide minerals that must have formed in the presence of water. The discovery shatters the existing paradigm that comets never get warm enough to melt their icy bulk. [50] In the spring of 2014, the recovery of particles of interstellar dust from the Discovery program's Stardust mission was announced. [51]

The Stardust samples are currently available for everyone to identify after completing the training at Berkeley webpage. [52]

Spacecraft location

The return capsule is currently located at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. It began exhibition there on 1 October 2008, the 50th anniversary of the establishment of NASA. The return capsule is displayed in sample collection mode, alongside a sample of the aerogel used to collect samples. [53]


The comet samples show that the outer regions of the early Solar System were not isolated and were not a refuge where interstellar materials could commonly survive. [54] The data suggest that high-temperature inner Solar System material formed and was subsequently transferred to the Kuiper belt. [55]


In 2009 it was announced by NASA that scientists had identified one of the fundamental chemical building blocks of life in a comet for the first time: glycine, an amino acid, was detected in the material ejected from comet Wild 2 in 2004 and captured by the Stardust probe. Glycine has been detected in meteorites before and there are also observations in interstellar gas clouds, but the Stardust find is described as a first in cometary material. Isotope analysis indicates that the Late Heavy Bombardment included cometary impacts after the Earth coalesced but before life evolved. [56] Carl Pilcher, who leads NASA's Astrobiology Institute commented that "The discovery of glycine in a comet supports the idea that the fundamental building blocks of life are prevalent in space, and strengthens the argument that life in the universe may be common rather than rare." [57]

See also

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