Through November, NASA is inviting individuals to submit their names to be etched on a microchip and flown aboard Stardust, a daring roundtrip robotic spacecraft mission to a comet.
The Stardust project, managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA, is collecting up to 300,000 names by Nov. 30, 1997. The names will be electronically etched onto a fingernail-size silicon chip in the Microdevices Lab at JPL, where the Stardust mission is managed. The collection of names is being coordinated with the assistance of The Planetary Society, a non-profit space interest and education group based in Pasadena.
Now beginning assembly and scheduled for launch in February 1999, the Stardust spacecraft will embark on a five-year journey through the coma and to approximately 150 kilometers (100 miles) of the nucleus of Comet Wild-2 (pronounced "VILT-2"), gather cometary dust particles and deliver them back to Earth.
"This is a chance for people to take a vicarious trip to a comet and back again," said Gloria Jew, coordinator for the Stardust mission's public outreach efforts at JPL.
Names on the chip will be so small that the width of the type used measures 10 times smaller than the width of a human hair and can be read only with the aid of an electron microscope. Names may be submitted electronically to the Stardust web page at http://stardust.jpl.nasa.gov/ or in writing, mailed to The Planetary Society, 65 N. Catalina Ave, Pasadena, CA 91106-2301. 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 will be the first space mission to gather dust and other material from a comet and bring it back to Earth for scientific analysis. In January 2006, an atmospheric reentry capsule housing the comet sample will plunge through the skies over Utah and parachute softly to the Earth's surface. A direct sample of a comet has been long sought by planetary scientists because comets 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 scientific bounty from its five-year voyage will also include samples of the interstellar dust that passes through our solar system. Return of this interstellar material will provide scientists with their first opportunity for laboratory study of the composition of the interstellar medium.
"Stardust has 'double-barreled' science objectives to capture samples of two deep-space phenomena, comets and interstellar dust," said Dr. Kenneth Atkins, Stardust project manager at JPL.
Both the comet and interstellar dust samples will be collected in a special material called aerogel, a lightweight transparent silica gel, the lowest density solid material in the world. (Aerogel was most recently used as a lightweight insulating material to protect the Mars Pathfinder Sojourner's electronics from the harsh, cold climate of Mars.)
As a Discovery-class mission, Stardust is one of NASA's new "faster, better, cheaper" missions. "Stardust also represents a reversal in traditional exploration technique," said Atkins. "Instead of taking expensively-packaged instruments to the target of interest, Stardust will bring samples of the targets to laboratories on Earth where existing instruments with the latest techniques can be used to examine them. This saves money and provides opportunities for more investigators to participate."
Comet Wild-2 is a 'fresh' comet which was recently (in 1974) deflected by Jupiter's gravity from an earlier orbit lying much farther out in the solar system. Having spent most of the last 4.6 billion years in the coldest, most distant reaches of the solar system, Wild-2 represents a well-preserved example of the fundamental building blocks out of which our solar system formed.
Stardust is the fourth NASA Discovery mission to be chosen and follows the Mars Pathfinder, Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR), and Lunar Prospector missions. The goal of NASA's Discovery Program is to launch many small missions that perform focused science with fast turn-around times, cost less than $150 million (in FY '92 dollars) to build, and are joint efforts with industry, small business and universities.
The principal investigator for Stardust is Dr. Donald E. Brownlee of the University of Washington, well-known for his discovery of cosmic particles in Earth's stratosphere. JPL's Dr. Peter Tsou, innovator in aerogel technology and maker of aerogel, serves as deputy investigator.
Stardust is being built by Lockheed Martin Astronautics, Denver, CO. JPL will provide the mission science payload that includes the optical navigation camera and manages the overall mission for NASA's Office of Space Science, Washington, DC. JPL is a division of the California Insititute of Technology.
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