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Stardust, NASA Comet Sample Return Probe

Stardust was a NASA probe whose main mission was to return a sample to Earth from the coma of comet Wild 2, by flying thru the coma to collect dust grains using an aerogel collection device.

Comet Wild 2 was captured into the inner solar system in 1974 after a close flyby of Jupiter.

Stardust was approved for funding in 1995 as part of NASA's Discovery program, and launched in 1999.

Along the way, a flyby of main belt asteroid 5535 Annefrank was scheduled for 2002, and was successful in obtaining some low resolution images of the asteroid, though close up characterization of the mineralogy was not attempted. The asteroid turned out to be about twice as large as anticipated from Earth observations, and might be a contact binary.

In 2002, Stardust successfully flew thru the coma of comet Wild 2 and collected grains while surviving the encounter without significant damage to the spacecraft.

In 2006, the probe arrived back at Earth and the container re-entered the Earth's atmosphere at 12.9 km/sec, eventually parachuting to the Utah desert as planned.

Analysis found that over a million dust grains were collected in the aerogel.

A program called "Stardust@Home" was started so that people over the internet could help with the tedious task of reviewing the aerogel and locating dust grains for a human to later go in and retrieve.

An extended mission was approved so that the Stardust spacecraft flew by comet Tempel 1, which had previously been visited by the Deep Impact probe. This mission was called NExT for "New Exploration of Temple".

In 2011, Stardust flew by Tempel 1 and successfully took photos of the comet nucleus so that we could see how it has changed since the Deep Space 1 visit, including the impact site of the Deep Space 1 impactor. It also analyzed captured dust grains by an interstellar dust device which had a mass spectrometer.

The spacecraft afterwards burned the last of its fuel and switched off according to plans.

External links:

Comet 81P/Wild, Wikipedia

MBA 5535 Annefrank, Wikipedia

Stardust@home, Wikipedia

A program to allow people on the internet to help analyze Stardust grains

Stardust probe, Wikipedia article

Comet 9P Tempel, Wikipedia > Asteroids, Near Earth Objects (NEO) > Probes to Asteroids and NEOs > Stardust

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P rojects to E mploy R esources of the M oon
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