NASA's Stardust mission, which will gather samples of dust as it flies by a comet and return them to Earth, has passed a key milestone with completion of its preliminary design review.
The project team got a thumbs up on its mission plans from an independent review board appointed by the space agency. Dr. Wesley T. Huntress, NASA's associate administrator for space science, confirmed the review board's conclusion that the project is ready to move forward into its development phase.
"This tells us we are fully on track, ready to meet our schedule and cost control constraints," said Stardust Project Manager Ken Atkins of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA.
Stardust is the latest in NASA's series of Discovery missions, which teams NASA with industry and universities to launch low-cost spacecraft in a short time frame with highly focused scientific goals.
Successful completion of the review marks the end of the mission's concept definition phase -- known in the aerospace industry as Phase B -- and the start of design, development and fabrication, known as Phases C and D.
NASA is committing nearly $118 million for Stardust development, with an additional $37 million necessary for mission operations. The next major review will come in June 1997 with a critical design review to confirm that design is complete and subsystems are on schedule for spacecraft integration, scheduled to begin in February 1998. Launch is planned for February 1999.
During its journey through space, Stardust will loop twice around the Sun to collect interstellar dust particles before it flies past Comet Wild-2 in 2004. Stardust will gather dust and other materials spewed from the comet's tail and return the samples to Earth in 2006 for scientific study. The mission will be the first ever to return material from a solar system object other than the Moon.
As the most primitive bodies in the solar system, comets hold great fascination for scientists, who believe they may reveal vital clues about the birth of the planets and the formation of life. The cosmic leftovers from planet formation, comets are rich in organic compounds and may have played a key role in the development of early life on Earth.
Mission planners faced a tough challenge -- how to capture comet dust as it whizzes by the spacecraft about seven times faster than a bullet fired from a rifle. The answer came in the form of aerogel, a sponge-like silica gel in which 99 percent of the volume is empty space. When a speck of comet dust hits the aerogel, it slows down gradually and comes to a stop, burying itself safely in the flexible material. Because aerogel is mostly transparent, scientists can trace the tracks to retrieve the comet dust.
The minuscule bits of cargo will be stored in a capsule designed to separate from the spacecraft's main body and descend into Earth's atmosphere, landing in Utah. The main spacecraft will continue in orbit around the Sun indefinitely.
Scientists are eagerly awaiting this opportunity to "get their hands on" particles of comet dust. "We guarantee the return of 1,000 particles larger than one-quarter the size of a human hair," said Stardust Principal Investigator Dr. Don Brownlee of the University of Washington. "Most likely there will be many additional particles of various sizes."
Brownlee leads the team collaborating on Stardust. The spacecraft and sample return capsule are being built by Lockheed Martin Astronautics in Denver, CO. The mission is managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena for NASA's Office of Space Science, Washington, DC; JPL is also developing the spacecraft's navigational camera. Stardust's cometary and interstellar dust analyzer instrument is provided by Jochen Kissel through the Max Planck Institute in Germany.
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