NASA's Stardust mission, scheduled to launch on a round-trip to a comet next February, has received messages from more than 200,000 people who want their names electronically engraved on the second of two microchips that will fly onboard the spacecraft.
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 around the world as people submit their names to the Stardust web page via the Internet, said Aimee Whalen, public outreach coordinator for the Stardust Project at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA.
"People are excited at the idea of their names flying on the Stardust spacecraft," Whalen said. "By submitting their names to the microchip, participants become vicarious passengers on a space voyage that they can follow over the next seven years." The project hopes to exhibit the names in a museum after the comet sample has returned to Earth, she 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 .
The first Stardust microchip, which contained 136,000 names collected last fall, has already been installed on the spacecraft, which is being assembled at Lockheed Martin Astronautics, Denver, CO.
Interest has heightened recently in Stardust and other NASA comet and asteroid projects with the promotion of Hollywood movies that center on fictional comet and asteroid impacts with Earth. Names are being gathered in cooperation with the National Space Society, Paramount Studios and Dreamworks Inc.
Names may only be submitted electronically and may be sent to the Stardust web page at http://stardust.jpl.nasa.gov. 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.
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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