Artist's concept of NASA's Stardust mission

Names inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. will be engraved on a microchip that will fly in space on NASA's Stardust mission to a comet, project officials have announced.

The names will join those of more than 400,000 people who have already submitted their names to fly, free-of-charge, on the Stardust spacecraft, which is scheduled for launch next February on a round-trip to a comet.

"This almost will be like sending a miniature version of the Vietnam Memorial into space as an eternal tribute to those who fell in America's longest war," said Jan Scruggs, founder and president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. There are 58,214 names inscribed on the memorial, Scruggs said. Approximately 2,500,000 people visit "The Wall" each year, making the Vietnam Veterans Memorial the most visited in Washington, D.C.

Stardust's prime mission is to return a sample of comet dust to Earth in 2006. The "Send Your Name to a Comet" effort has drawn attention from around the world as people submit their names via the Internet to the Stardust Project at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA.

"We wanted to honor the memory of those who fell in the war," said Project Manager Dr. Kenneth Atkins, himself a Vietnam- era Air Force pilot with the Strategic Air Command from 1959 to 1968. "This is also an opportunity for veterans, their families and loved ones to create a special remembrance by having their names united on this peaceful exploration of space," he added.

Included is the name of Air Force pilot Michael J. Blassie, whose remains were this week identified and disinterred from the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.

Atkins of JPL and Scruggs of the Vietnam Memorial both hope to link their education efforts to broaden the audiences of their respective organizations. The Stardust project hopes to exhibit all the collected names in a museum after the comet sample has returned to Earth, Atkins said.

The names are electronically etched onto a fingernail-size silicon chip at JPL's Microdevices Lab. Writing on the microchip is so small that about 80 letters would equal the width of a human hair. Once inscribed, the names can be read only with the aid of an electron microscope.

The web page and a project-sponsored network of educators across the country are two of the main efforts Stardust is using to bring information about the mission, its science plans and eventual discoveries to as broad an audience as possible.

Scientists have long sought a direct sample of a comet particle because these icy bodies are thought to be nearly pristine examples of the original material from which the Sun and planets were born 4.6 billion years ago. Stardust's mission is to travel to within 150 kilometers (100 miles) of the nucleus of Comet Wild-2 (pronounced "Vilt-2"), gather comet dust particles and deliver them back to Earth. En route to the comet, Stardust will attempt to capture interstellar particles that are believed to be blowing through the solar system. In January 2006, mission plans call for the Stardust sample return capsule to parachute to a designated landing spot in the Utah desert .

Names may only be submitted electronically and may be sent to the Stardust web page at . Those submitting their names are granting permission for the Stardust project and its partners to use the names submitted in possible future exhibits and/or publications. More information about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund is at .

Stardust, managed for NASA's Space Science Division and is a collaborative partnership between the University of Washington, Lockheed Martin Astronautics, and JPL/Caltech. Stardust is the fourth mission to be chosen under NASA's Discovery Program of low-cost solar system projects, and follows the Mars Pathfinder, Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) and Lunar Prospector missions. The goal of the Discovery Program is to launch many small missions that perform focused science with fast turn-around times, cost less than $150 million (in fiscal year 1992 dollars) to build, and are joint efforts with industry, small business and universities.

JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology.

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