Good Night, Stardust, and Thanks

Good Night, Stardust, and Thanks

NASA terminated operations of the Stardust spacecraft today, bringing its 12 year mission to a close.

Launched in February 1999, Stardust captivated scientists and the public by transmitting photographs of Comet Wild 2 and returning samples of dust from it — stardust. The sample canister was successfully dropped off at Earth in 2006 while the mother spacecraft continued its flight through space. That gave scientists an opportunity to assign the spacecraft a new mission — studying another comet that just had been visited by NASA’s Deep Impact spacecraft.

In that mission, an impactor was deployed from Deep Impact and placed into the path of Comet Tempel 1 to cause a collision. The mother Deep Impact spacecraft studied the material that was ejected during the collision, as well as relaying data and photographs from the impactor as the collision approached. Now scientists would have a chance to return and take additional photographs of the crater that the impactor created along with parts of the comet that Deep Impact could not see.

Rechristened Stardust-NExT, the spacecraft successfully returned to Comet Temple 1 on February 14, 2011 and sent back photographs and data that are still being analyzed.

As its final task, the spacecraft was commanded to burn all of its remaining fuel so engineers on Earth could calculate how much was left after its 3.54 billion — yes, billion — mile journey. They want to compare their estimates of the fuel required for such a mission with what was actually used, but there are “no fully reliable fuel gauges for spacecraft in the weightless environment of space” according to NASA. The data are expected to be useful when planning future missions.

Like Stardust, Deep Impact was given a second mission after its successful encounter with Comet Tempel 1. Renamed EPOXI, it studied Comet Hartley 2. Scientists want to learn more about comets because they hold clues to what happened in the early formation of our solar system.

Stardust-NExT program manager Lindley Johnson said that although this is the end of spacecraft operations, it is “just the beginnings of what this spacecraft’s accomplishments will give to planetary science.”

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