PUBLIC INFORMATION OFFICE
JET PROPULSION LABORATORY
CALIFORNIA INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY
NATIONAL AERONAUTICS AND SPACE ADMINISTRATION
PASADENA, CALIF. 91109. TELEPHONE (818) 354-5011
Contact: Jane Platt
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASEOctober 28, 1996
STARDUST COMET MISSION PASSES KEY MILESTONE
NASA's Stardust mission, which will gather samples of dust
as it flies by a comet and return them to Earth, has passed a key
milestone with completion of its preliminary design review.
The project team got a thumbs up on its mission plans from
an independent review board appointed by the space agency. Dr.
Wesley T. Huntress, NASA's associate administrator for space
science, confirmed the review board's conclusion that the project
is ready to move forward into its development phase.
"This tells us we are fully on track, ready to meet our
schedule and cost control constraints," said Stardust Project
Manager Ken Atkins of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena,
Stardust is the latest in NASA's series of Discovery
missions, which teams NASA with industry and universities to
launch low-cost spacecraft in a short time frame with highly
focused scientific goals.
Successful completion of the review marks the end of the
mission's concept definition phase -- known in the aerospace
industry as Phase B -- and the start of design, development and
fabrication, known as Phases C and D.
NASA is committing nearly $118 million for Stardust
development, with an additional $37 million necessary for mission
operations. The next major review will come in June 1997 with a
critical design review to confirm that design is complete and
subsystems are on schedule for spacecraft integration, scheduled
to begin in February 1998. Launch is planned for February 1999.
During its journey through space, Stardust will loop twice
around the Sun to collect interstellar dust particles before it
flies past Comet Wild-2 in 2004. Stardust will gather dust and
other materials spewed from the comet's tail and return the
samples to Earth in 2006 for scientific study. The mission will
be the first ever to return material from a solar system object
other than the Moon.
As the most primitive bodies in the solar system, comets
hold great fascination for scientists, who believe they may
reveal vital clues about the birth of the planets and the
formation of life. The cosmic leftovers from planet formation,
comets are rich in organic compounds and may have played a key
role in the development of early life on Earth.
Mission planners faced a tough challenge -- how to
capture comet dust as it whizzes by the spacecraft about seven
times faster than a bullet fired from a rifle. The answer came
in the form of aerogel, a sponge-like silica gel in which 99
percent of the volume is empty space. When a speck of comet dust
hits the aerogel, it slows down gradually and comes to a stop,
burying itself safely in the flexible material. Because aerogel
is mostly transparent, scientists can trace the tracks to
retrieve the comet dust.
The minuscule bits of cargo will be stored in a capsule
designed to separate from the spacecraft's main body and descend
into Earth's atmosphere, landing in Utah. The main spacecraft
will continue in orbit around the Sun indefinitely.
Scientists are eagerly awaiting this opportunity to "get
their hands on" particles of comet dust. "We guarantee the return
of 1,000 particles larger than one-quarter the size of a human
hair," said Stardust Principal Investigator Dr. Don Brownlee of
the University of Washington. "Most likely there will be many
additional particles of various sizes."
Brownlee leads the team collaborating on Stardust. The
spacecraft and sample return capsule are being built by Lockheed
Martin Astronautics in Denver, CO. The mission is managed by
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena for NASA's Office of
Space Science, Washington, DC; JPL is also developing the
spacecraft's navigational camera. Stardust's cometary and
interstellar dust analyzer instrument is provided by Jochen
Kissel through the Max Planck Institute in Germany.
Note to Editors: An artist's rendering of Stardust is available
by calling the JPL Public Information Office.