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NASA's Stardust: Good to the Last Drop

March 23, 2011 - PASADENA, Calif. -- On Thursday, March 24 at about 4 p.m. PDT (7 p.m. EDT), NASA's Stardust spacecraft will perform a final burn with its main engines.

At first glance, the burn is something of an insignificant event. After all, the venerable spacecraft has executed 40 major flight path maneuvers since its 1999 launch, and between these main engines and the reaction control system, its rocket motors have collectively fired more than 2 million times. But the March 24 burn will be different from all others. This burn will effectively end the life of NASA's most traveled comet hunter.

  On March 24, at about 4 p.m. PDT, four rocket motors on NASA's Stardust spacecraft, illustrated in this artist's concept, are scheduled to fire until the spacecraft's fuel is depleted. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
  On March 24, at about 4 p.m. PDT, four rocket motors on NASA's Stardust spacecraft, illustrated in this artist's concept, are scheduled to fire until the spacecraft's fuel is depleted. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech. View larger image

"We call it a 'burn to depletion,' and that is pretty much what we're doing - firing our rockets until there is nothing left in the tank,"
said Stardust-NExT project manager Tim Larson of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "It's a unique way for an interplanetary spacecraft to go out. Essentially, Stardust will be providing us useful information to the very end."

Burn to depletion will answer the question about how much fuel Stardust had left in its tank.

"We'll take those data and compare them to what our estimates told us was left," said Allan Cheuvront, Lockheed Martin Space Systems program manager for Stardust-NExT. "That will give us a better idea how valid our fuel consumption models are and make our predictions even more accurate for future missions."

Fuel consumption models are necessary because no one has invented an entirely reliable fuel gauge for spacecraft. Until that day arrives, mission planners can approximate fuel usage by looking at the history of the vehicle's flight and how many times and for how long its rocket motors have fired.

Stardust's burn to depletion is expected to impart valuable information, because the spacecraft has essentially been running on borrowed time -- for some time. Launched on Feb. 7, 1999, Stardust had already flown past an asteroid (Annefrank), flown past and collected particle samples from a comet (Wild 2), and returned those particles to Earth in a sample return capsule in January 2006 - and in so doing racked up 4.63 billion kilometers (2.88 billion miles) on its odometer. NASA then re-tasked the still-healthy spacecraft to perform a flyby of comet Tempel 1, a new, low-cost mission that required another five years and 1.04 billion kilometers (646 million miles). After all those milestones and all that time logged on the spacecraft, the Stardust team knew the end was near.
They just didn't know exactly how close.


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