Collecting Stardust from a Comet

Collecting Stardust from a Comet
October 01, 2020

NASA’s Stardust was the first U.S. mission dedicated to exploring a comet and the also first U.S. mission designed to robotically obtain samples from a comet and return them to Earth.

Stardust was launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., on a Delta II expendable launch vehicle Feb. 7, 1999. Between February–May 2000 and August–December 2002, interstellar dust particles were collected. On November 2, 2002, Stardust successfully performed a flyby of the Asteroid Annefrank, providing photos of the asteroid.

On January 2, 2004, Stardust came within approximately 149 miles of comet Wild 2 (pronounced Vilt 2) and acquired 72 detailed images of its surface features. While flying through the comet’s coma, the spacecraft captured particles and stored them in the sample return capsule (SRC).

The SRC – containing the intersetellar dust and cometary particles — was released from the main body of the spacecraft on Jan. 15, 2006. The capsule reentered the Earth’s atmosphere and, with the assistance of a parachute system, successfully landed at the Utah Test and Training Range in the Utah desert. The samples were delivered to the curatorial facility at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX, for analysis by the science team. The initial results from studying the particles and dust have been surprising.

Dr. Donald Brownlee of the University of Washington is principal investigator. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. managed the Stardust mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. Stardust is the fourth mission of NASA’s Discovery program, a set of missions designed to explore deep space with exceptional scientific results at the lowest possible cost.

Lockheed Martin Space Systems was the industrial partner on the Stardust mission, having designed, built, integrated and tested the spacecraft at its facilities near Denver, Colo. Lockheed Martin provided both launch support and capsule-return support, and controlled and operated the spacecraft, in cooperation with JPL, from the company’s Mission Support Area facilities near Denver, Colo.

After the successful Stardust mission, NASA gave the still-operating spacecraft a new assignment. Stardust-NExT (New Exploration of Tempel) will expand the investigation of comet Tempel 1 initiated by NASA’s Deep Impact spacecraft.