Stardust Spacecraft Successfully Flies Through Coma Of Comet, Scoops Up Samples For Return To Earth
DENVER, Colo., 02-JAN-04 -- In a well choreographed rendezvous today in deep space, the Stardust spacecraft, built by Lockheed Martin for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), successfully flew through the dust cloud or coma of the comet Wild 2, coming to within approximately 240 kilometers (149 miles) of the cometary nucleus itself. The spacecraft extended its collector mechanism, which is composed of a grid-like pattern similar to that of a tennis racket, to capture particles of cometary dust as it flew through the coma at a speed of 21,960 kilometers per hour (13,650 miles per hour).
We are thrilled with how well the Stardust spacecraft performed its mission today, said Jim Crocker, vice president of civil space programs at Lockheed Martin Space Systems. Today's success is the result of years of planning, dedication and tremendous teamwork by every single member of the Stardust team at NASA, JPL and Lockheed Martin. It's an amazing achievement, but our work is far from done. We are focused now on the two-year process of bringing Stardust home safely so that Dr. Don Brownlee and his science team can get those samples into laboratories for analysis here on Earth.
Stardust's approach to the comet was timed perfectly by a team of engineers and navigators at Lockheed Martin and JPL who have been fine-tuning the spacecraft's trajectory throughout its five year, two-billion mile journey from Earth. The results led to a ten-hour passage through Wild 2's hailstorm of cometary dust. Instruments onboard the spacecraft operated during the encounter phase, providing preliminary data and images of the comet and its coma that, until now, have never before been available to scientists.
It's incredible and the entire team is ecstatic, said Dr. Donald Brownlee of the University of Washington, principal investigator for the Stardust mission. Over the next several hours, days and weeks, we'll be looking at the initial data and telemetry that is being transmitted to us from the spacecraft. We are particularly interested in the size, the count and the composition of cometary dust particles that were collected inside the coma. The photo images are phenomenal and provide important information for understanding the nature and physical evolution of comets.
During the flyby maneuver, cometary dust particles were embedded into a unique material called aerogel contained within each grid of the collector mechanism. The micron-sized samples will be preserved within the aerogel inside the spacecraft's sample return capsule for the journey back to Earth with an arrival date of Jan. 15, 2006. Stardust has already collected samples of interstellar dust, which will be analyzed in addition to the comet particles. Scientists will study the composition of this stardust to determine the history, chemistry, physics and mineralogy of nature's most fundamental building blocks. Scientists also believe that comets are among the most primitive and ancient bodies in the solar system, and understanding the makeup of comets will provide scientists a greater understanding of how the solar system formed and evolved.