Artist's concept of NASA's Stardust mission

The magic of comets will play a starring role in thousands of classrooms across America, thanks to an agreement between NASA's Stardust project and two national education organizations.

Through the Challenger Center for Space Science Education, located in Alexandria, VA, and the Jason Project, based in Waltham, MA, beginning this fall more than 2 million school children will have hands-on experience in studying comets, the orbiting objects often described as "dirty snowballs."

As the students learn about these fascinating, primitive celestial bodies, NASA will be gearing up for its upcoming Stardust mission, expected to launch in 1999. This unique mission will fly close to the Comet Wild-2, gather some material spewed from its tail and then return the sample to Earth in 2006 for scientific study. The Stardust mission will be the first ever to return material from outside the Earth-Moon system.

"With the infrastructure of kids interested in science and engineering, it's a ready-made synergistic audience for the excitement of this comet mission," said Stardust Project Manager Ken Atkins. The educational programs will target children from the fourth through eighth grades.

The Challenger Center, a leader in education simulation, has developed a scenario in which students will "fly" their own space mission to rendezvous with a comet and take samples from its tail.

"Comets have inspired people for thousands of years as the quintessential space objects," said Vance Ablott, chief executive officer of the Challenger Center. "By working with NASA on Project Stardust we will link the reality of this important mission with the dreams of students across the country to advance the study of math, science and technology."

The JASON Project will also utilize high-tech learning methods in the classroom and on the Internet to offer students an interactive journey to space. The JASON Project was originally founded in 1989 by Dr. Robert Ballard after thousands of students wrote him about his discovery of the wreckage of the R.M.S. Titanic. Through sophisticated telecommunications, the foundation provides a "telepresence," enabling students to witness real-time research expeditions and share data with scientists. This "you are there" approach to learning will be reflected in the students' studies of Stardust.

Stardust is the latest in NASA's set of Discovery missions. The missions team NASA with industry and universities to launch low-cost spacecraft in a short period of time with exceptional, focused scientific goals.

The Stardust Project is a collaboration between Principal Investigator Dr. Don Brownlee of the University of Washington, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA, and industry partner Lockheed Martin Astronautics in Denver, CO, for NASA's Office of Space Science, Washington, D.C.

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