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Stardust mission graphic

Phase: Past

Launch Date: February 07, 1999

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The Stardust spacecraft was launched on February 7, 1999. The primary goal of Stardust is to collect comet dust during its closest encounter with Comet Wild 2 (pronounced "Vilt 2") after the name of its Swiss discoverer.  In addition, during part of its flight, an attempt was made to collect interstellar dust.

In January 2004, the Stardust spacecraft flew through comet dust and captured specks of it in a very light, low-density substance called aerogel. During the encounter, the Dust Flux Monitor recorded rates of impact of dust particles and the Comet and Interstellar Dust Analyzer (CIDA) did real time analyses of their compositions. But primarily, Stardust captured samples and stored them for safe keep on its long journey back to Earth.

Stardust's return capsule parachuted to the Utah Test and Training Range on Jan. 15, 2006 after a seven-year mission. The science canister containing the comet particles and interstellar dust particles were taken to NASA’s Johnson Space Center. From there, the cometary samples have been processed and distributed to about 150 scientists worldwide who are using a variety of techniques to determine the properties of the cometary grains.

A particle impact on the aluminum frame that holds the aerogel tiles

This image shows a particle impact on the aluminum frame that holds the aerogel tiles. The debris from the impact shot into the adjacent aerogel tile producing the explosion pattern of ejecta fragments captured in the material. Scott Sandford, the study's lead author and a scientist from NASA's Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley describes capturing the particles in aerogel as “a little bit like collecting BBs by shooting them into Styrofoam." Image Credit: NASA/JPL

Scientists found a new class of organics during preliminary examinations of the comet dust captured from comet Wild 2. Although some of the other organics captured by the Stardust spacecraft look somewhat similar to the fairly stable organics found in meteorites, many of the organic compounds appear to be very volatile. The comet organics collected by the Stardust spacecraft are more "primitive" than those seen in meteorites. Many scientists believe that comets are largely made of the original material from which our solar system formed and could contain pre-solar system, interstellar grains, although so far they appear to be very rare.  The comet particles have a wide range of compositions and mineralogies, indicating that there had to have been substantial radial mixing in the solar nebula.  As one example, a particle was discovered that is similar to Calcium Aluminum-rich Inclusions (CAIs), which occur in meteorites and have been shown to be high-temperature condensates that formed close to the Sun.  Continued analysis of these celestial specks may well yield important insights into the evolution of the Sun, its planets, and possibly even the origin of life.

The Stardust spacecraft has been in a hibernation state since 2006 and has now been given a new assignment - New Exploration of Tempel 1 (NExT). The NExT mission will reuse NASA's Stardust spacecraft to revisit comet Tempel 1. This investigation will provide the first look at the changes to a comet nucleus produced after its close approach to the Sun and an opportunity to image the crater created by the Deep Impact mission from its encounter with the comet on July 4, 2005. It will mark the first time a comet has ever been revisited. NExT also will extend the mapping of Tempel 1, making it the most mapped comet nucleus to date. This mapping will help address the major questions of comet nucleus "geology" raised by images of areas where it appears material might have flowed like a liquid or powder. NExt is scheduled to fly by Tempel 1 on Feb. 14, 2011.