NASA's comet-bound spacecraft, Stardust, successfully completed a critical deep space maneuver, positioning itself on a course to encounter comet Wild 2 in January 2004 and collect dust from the comet.
At 21:56 Universal Time (1:56 p.m. Pacific Time), January 18, Stardust fired its thrusters for nearly 111 seconds, increasing the speed of the spacecraft by 2.65 meters per second (about 6 miles per hour).
"This is the maneuver that sets us up for the bigger maneuver. It's a combination of increasing the speed of the spacecraft and at the same time putting it on the path to reach Wild 2," said Robert Ryan, Stardust's mission manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "It's like the setup pass in a basketball game. Now we're ready to shoot the basket."
The spacecraft responded exactly as planned, said Ryan, although communication was tricky. Stardust is currently the farthest solar-powered object from the Sun, over 395 million kilometers (245 million miles) away. The spacecraft's signal confirming it had completed the maneuver took almost 30 minutes to reach Earth.
In January 2004, Stardust will fly through the halo of dust that surrounds the nucleus of comet Wild 2. The spacecraft will return to Earth in January 2006 to make a soft landing at the U.S. Air Force Utah Test and Training Range. Its sample return capsule, holding microscopic particles of comet and interstellar dust, will be taken to the planetary material curatorial facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas, where the samples will be carefully stored and examined.
Stardust's cometary and interstellar dust samples will help provide answers to fundamental questions about the origins of the solar system. More information on the Stardust mission is available at http://stardust.jpl.nasa.gov .
Stardust, a part of NASA's Discovery Program of low-cost, highly focused science missions, was built by Lockheed Martin Astronautics and Operations, Denver, Colo., and is managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., for NASA's Office of Space Science, Washington, D.C. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. The principal investigator is astronomy professor Donald E. Brownlee of the University of Washington in Seattle.