Artist's concept of NASA's Stardust mission

NASA's Stardust spacecraft, designed to fly to a comet, collect a sample and return it to Earth, has arrived at the Kennedy Space Center, FL, to begin pre-launch processing.

Launch aboard a Delta 7426 rocket is currently targeted for February 6, 1999 from Cape Canaveral Air Station.

Stardust will be the first spacecraft ever to bring cometary material back to Earth for analysis by scientists worldwide. Comets are believed to contain the original building blocks of the planets and perhaps those of life itself. Early in Earth's history, comets laden with water ice slammed into the planet, maybe providing the source of our oceans. When Stardust returns its pristine comet samples, scientists will be able to examine for the first time the key ingredients of the original recipe that created the planets.

The spacecraft was shipped from Lockheed Martin Astronautics, Denver, CO, aboard a C-17 aircraft and landed at Kennedy Space Center this morning. Stardust is being built Lockheed Martin Astronautics and is managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA. The principal investigator of the mission is space particle scientist Dr. Donald Brownlee of the University of Washington. Dr. Kenneth Atkins of JPL is the project manager.

Stardust's main objective is to collect and bring to Earth particles flying off the nucleus of Comet Wild-2 in January 2004. It will also bring back samples of interstellar dust including the recently discovered dust streaming into the solar system from other stars. The spacecraft will send back pictures of Wild-2, count the comet particles striking the spacecraft, and produce real-time analyses of the composition of the material coming off the comet.

A unique substance called aerogel is the medium that will be used to catch and preserve comet samples. When Stardust swings by Earth in January 2006, the samples encased in a reentry capsule will be jettisoned and parachute to a pre-selected site in the Utah desert.

The length of the Stardust main bus is 1.7 meters (5.5 feet), about the size of an average office desk. The spacecraft weighs 385 kilograms (849 pounds). Among the processing activities to be performed are installation and testing of the solar arrays, final installation and testing of some spacecraft instruments followed by an overall spacecraft functional test. The spacecraft can then be fueled and mated to the Star 37 solid propellant upper-stage booster.

Meanwhile, at Launch Complex 17, the Delta II rocket will be undergoing erection and pre-launch checkout by Boeing. The first stage is scheduled to be installed into the launcher on January 5, 1999. Four solid-rocket boosters will be attached around the base of the first stage the next day. The second stage will be mated atop the first stage on January 8, and the spacecraft fairing will be hoisted into the clean room of the pad's mobile service tower January 11.

Stardust will be transported to Complex 17 on January 28 for hoisting aboard the Delta rocket on Pad A and mating to the second stage. After the spacecraft undergoes state of health checks, the fairing can be placed around it three days later. Launch is currently targeted for February 6 at 4:08 p.m. EST. The 20-day launch opportunity ends February 25.

Stardust is the fourth under NASA's Discovery Program of low-cost science missions, following Lunar Prospector, Mars Pathfinder and the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR). The goal of NASA's Discovery Program is to launch many smaller missions with shorter development time that perform focused science at lower cost.

JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA.

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